Beware of Charging Unicorns: SoFi’s Vision of a “Bankless World”

Glen Sarvady February 4th, 2016
Marketing Insights

Super Bowl ad season is again upon us, and according to the Wall Street Journal these high-priced TV spots can generate eye-popping increases in site traffic for little-known brands. Therefore it’s little wonder that even web-centric startups turn to this old-school media strategy to attract attention. Of course you’d better have a viable business model once you draw that traffic to your door – remember Pets.com?

The TV ad bankers should watch for on Super Sunday is from SoFi – the so-called Silicon Valley unicorn with a $4 billion valuation prior to going public. Short for “social finance,” SoFi leads with a student loan refinancing proposition, but also offers mortgages and other personal loans.

The bold text on SoFi’s website spells out its mission quite plainly: “This is the beginning of a bankless world.”

The firm has clearly determined it’s time to shove their chips to the middle of the table. In addition to the Super Bowl ad I’ve recently been inundated with posts from their Twitter feed, and have started noticing display ads on bus shelters as well.

The TV spot can be viewed at the Journal link above and is relatively mild mannered. It’s on Twitter that SoFi takes the gloves off – a rational segmentation strategy, given that heavy social media users (presumably Millennials, SoFi’s primary target) are more likely to react favorably to edgy messaging. Nonetheless, bankers are likely to wince at some of the jabs taken at the traditional model.

bankess image

SoFi valley capture

This is not a threat to take passively

Especially when it’s aimed at the demographic that will be banks’ lifeblood in the coming decade. Fortunately, there are tools at FIs’ disposal to offer a compelling proposition to customers and prospects receptive to new models.

  • Take the Lightstream consumer lending division. SunTrust’s product (from its 2012 acquisition of direct online lender FirstAgain) offers a fully paperless loan process, touting same-day approval and funds availability for loans of $5K-100K, and offering $100 to any customer not fully satisfied with the experience. Lightstream focuses on the super-prime consumer segment; most startup disruptors promise a mass market solution, but FIs are wise to first build momentum in a niche with a clearer path to success.
  • Take the Lightstream model a step further. Identify consumers with a solid risk profile who are already in the market for a loan, and reach out to them with pre-qualified credit offers. Datamyx, a Deluxe company, leads the way in pulling the data together to help you do this.
  • Speak Millennials’ language. Too often, when banks do reach out via social media their language can come across as stilted or contrived. Note the contrast in tone between SoFi’s messaging and the typical bank website. Deluxe’s Todd Weiss wrote an excellent primer on leveraging Millennial-speak throughout the onboarding process.
  • Emphasize referrals. Building on the above point, Millennials are more likely to make purchase decisions based on recommendations of friends and influencers, and also expect to be rewarded for their actions. A well-designed referral program can therefore deliver the dual benefits of customer acquisition and deepened engagement with existing customers.

So, enjoy the game Sunday and when you see a commercial threatening to upend your banking world – rather than punching the screen – consider these constructive responses.

This content is accurate at the time of publication and may not be updated.