Feature

Starling on evolving from plucky challenger to trusted business bank

Fresh from the release of its second TV campaign and a £60m round of funding, Starling’s head of brand Rachel Kerrone outlines her vision for the future of the challenger bank.

The UK fintech market is a crowded one. Neon coral and turquoise bank cards are quickly filling up wallets and purses across the nation, setting new customer expectations about what kind of experience banks should offer, and the services they should provide.

Starling is the turquoise one, or navy blue if you’re a business customer. It was founded in 2014 by RBS, Allied Irish Banks, Lloyds Bank and UBS veteran Anne Boden in 2014 and as of this month it has raised £323m in funding to date.

Along with its pink-hued rival Monzo (with which it has a tumultuous history) it’s now competing to dominate the wave of people dropping traditional banks for challenger services.

Ex-RBS marketer Rachel Kerrone is the exec tasked with helping the brand’s proposition stand out in the crowded space. Under her watch, the pure digital player has just invested in a multimillion TV campaign – it's second in two years.

Now, armed with a roster of indie agencies and a focus on business customers she’s looking to steer the business from a plucky challenger to one small and medium enterprise businesses will trust as their main bank account.

This week, launched the brand’s second TV ad, ‘Helping Business Fly’, which follows the journey of a small business owner, heroically setting off into the unknown. The creative has been designed to build the brand’s SME customer base and it also spans radio and outdoor, looking to reinforce Starling’s leading proposition as a national UK bank.

The debut follows on from the launch of Starling’s first TV ad last October.

“We had to launch into the market as a business and a retail brand initially. So the last campaign was about building brand awareness and we saw a huge spike in that,” Kerrone tells The Drum.

Brand awareness in the UK was just 22% when the bank ran the first work, according to YouGov figures Within six weeks it had increased to 38% and today, it sits at 60%.

Kerrone explains: “This time around we wanted to drill down more into these business owners and entrepreneurs and convey the humanity our brand.”

“One of our key KPIs is still brand awareness, as well as trust and consideration and whether more people will consider using us as their bank.”

'With agencies, we're putting our money where our mouth is'

Starling customers have opened 1.26m accounts to date, with the bank more than doubling its customer base in the past year. Of these, 1.1m are personal accounts and 117,320 are business accounts.

Where Monzo has focused firmly on personal accounts, overdrafts and tie-ups with third-party providers, Starling has spotted an opportunity to tap into the UK’s burgeoning SME space. Like more traditional competitor Metro Bank, it has recognised a need to look beyond the UK’s capital to attract more small business owners.

“While it’s a crowded market, for us to move out of that London bubble, where we see a lot of the early adopters of technology we wanted to bring our message across the UK. We’ve been doing that through broadcast TV and OOH and the latest campaign will run 10 of the big cities around the UK, in bold advertising spaces,” says.

Something else was different about this push too: Starling was armed with an entirely new agency set up in making it.

In September 2019, the brand hired Wonderhood Studios (the startup founded last year by former Channel 4 boss David Abraham) to handle its creative, tasked with establishing it as the “leading business banking provider”.

In November, the bank also appointed Bountiful Cow to handle its media.

“Historically we’ve done a lot in-house… it’s given us a personality and humanity to everything we do,” says Kerrone, highlighting that Working with indie agencies has been a very conscious decision.

“As we’ve grown and started to do bigger campaigns, particularly on TV, there’s been a real need for us to work with agencies and we wanted to work with SME agencies."

As such, network agencies weren't invited to compete.

“When we went through the process we were very specific that we wanted to work with the smaller and medium-sized shops, putting our money where our mouth is. We wanted to be honest with ourselves.”

Though Starling doesn’t reveal media spend, Nielsen estimated that it splashed £1.3m in October – a huge increase in September’s £177,899. In the 12 months to October, Starling was pitted to have spent just over £2m on marketing.

The business will now be upping those numbers as it looks towards Europe for expansion; something that’s already been delayed by Brexit. It’s hot off the back of a £60m funding round too, but Kerrone says that doesn’t necessarily mean a massive boost to brand spend.

“At the moment there aren’t any plans to inject those funds into marketing more specifically, but it will allow us to grow in Europe,” she says.

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