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Paul Drawbridge
Battleground Africa: The Coming Financial Services Brand War

The financial services industry is still pretty under-developed in most parts of Africa. Penetration of banking is low, internet banking is just starting up and very few people are currently insured. It’s not uncommon to find people, especially in rural areas, who would rather keep their money hidden in their homes than entrust a bank with it.

And this mistrust has been exacerbated by a spate of financial institutions folding, resulting in people losing the little assets that they had managed to save. There is a perception that banks are for the 'upper classes' rather than the average person. Crossing the threshold of a banking hall can be an intimidating experience.

And within the existing financial infrastructure - where it exists in urban areas - things are slow. The branch experience is frustrating. There are archaic, paper-based and complex processes. And in my experience, bankers have done things on my account that they were not authorised to, and I've been told one thing in one branch and something completely different in a different branch.

But all of this is about to change.

African expansion is on the agenda of every major CEO and CMO, as the region's economy continues to grow at a staggering rate and millions of people are lifted into the middle class. South African banks are expanding across the continent, Nigerian and Kenyan banks are expanding across their regions and I regularly get calls from London from financial services players that are interested in Africa. Prudential bought an insurance player in Ghana last year. The former head of Barclays, Bob Diamond, has just launched Atlas Mara with a Ugandan in London. Global banks are either buying up African banks or launching their own, and even those who haven't done it yet are sniffing around and hatching their plans.

The interest of global and regional giants will change the financial services industry across Africa in the next five years. And as consumers are met with greater choice, their expectations will rise. Competition is about to get ruthless.

How can financial services brands ensure they are equipped to win in Africa over the next five years?

  1. Don't stretch yourself too thin. Expanding too quickly results in shoddy customer service and an inconsistent brand experience. As the sector becomes more established, consumers will become increasingly unforgiving and open to switching.
  2. Move wisely. Because the continent is so diverse, we recommend a phased approach to expansion, based on market clustering rather than geographic proximity. Look for commonalities in economic development, infrastructure and consumer needs, and develop short, medium and long term strategies for each cluster.
  3. Educate your employees and your customers. There is very little understanding of the more complex areas of services and functionalities. Invest in ensuring your staff know the business well, and educate consumers to make the right choices for themselves.
  4. Understand the local lingo. Communicate in relevant, reassuring ways that establish trust. Although most financial services advertising is tactical and promotional, consumers are becoming more accustomed to long-term brand communication from global players. Get the mix of instant customer benefit and brand-building right.   
  5. Be ready for convergence. Africa's poor banking infrastructure is a source of innovation, not a handicap. With Safaricom's M-Pesa and Airtel's Mobile Money, Africa is leading the way in mobile payment systems. Convergence between telcos and financial services will continue to increase, so be sure to have the right platforms and partnerships in place to stay ahead of the innovation and remain relevant and useful to the consumer.

For now, the focus of many financial brands in Africa is on getting emerging middle class consumers into the banking system. In the next few years we will see the continued disruption of traditional channels and products, with insurance, savings and payment system innovations. As first-time consumers grow more confident, they will choose brands less for being the only one that they know and more because they offer the right product and pricing fit, and get their customer service right. Africa will be a financial services battleground over the next decade. Expect to see consolidation of regional and global players and marketing that gets serious about winning over the consumer. Banking can stay slow no longer. 

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