What does trust look like in a world of economic uncertainty? Crowd DNA semiotician, Bridget Dalton, explores the future of trust in the age of the digital bank...

It feels like a truism to say that banks must communicate trust. But in a financial world that has been churning since the crash of 2008 – alongside frequent innovation from ‘challenger’ banks responding to a new generation of consumers – the way that trust is communicated is very much anyone’s game.

Culturally, we’re moving away from trust narratives located in one well and/or long established place or person. Consumers are looking for new representations of trust that can accommodate change, impermanence and flux. So how can banking brands (traditionally a category for which stability is important) build trust in this context? 

In the second post of our Semiotics At Crowd series, we’re looking at Starling Bank. The digital banking service was founded in 2014 and offers personal, business, joint and euro accounts. From a semiotic standpoint, it also sheds interesting light on future-facing narratives of trust and fluidity in finance, as well as how brands can approach an ambition to grow older customer bases in fintech. Below, we’ve used Starling to explore three new codes of trust in the age of the digital bank.

1. Trust as fluid and always in motion

The murmuration of birds in Starling’s comms demonstrates a very clear shift when it comes to trust in finance. Compared to the permanence of bricks and mortar banking represented by long established institutions, trust is now in the nimble ability to react and change (think from bullion to bitcoin). The group of starlings appears to duck and dive at random, bolting through the landscape along an unpredictable course. But, the birds are also always in perfect formation; instinctive and fluid, efficient and elegant. There’s room for individual flight, but they are able to regroup at any moment. 

“Starling’s birds are a far cry from the guardianship of, say, Barclay’s eagle – static and watchful. Instead, they’re adaptable and able to respond to changing environments.”

Starling’s troop of birds are a far cry from the guardianship of, say, Barclay’s eagle – static and watchful. Instead, they are adaptable and able to respond to a changing environment. Coding money itself as fluid and changeable, as opposed to singular and steady. The starling comms represent thoughtful but fast freedom. By using the image of the birds in flight, Starling is suggesting that today trust is about enabling consumers to have confidence and range through intuitive structures, that are always ready to respond to the environment.

2. Trust as authority, balanced by youthful pleasure

Starling’s livery allows the brand to sit between the established formality of traditional banking and the bright, disruptive optimism of a challenger bank. From a semiotic point of view, Monzo’s neon orange card redefines our relationship with finance; the payment moment becomes enlivened, almost irreverent and youthful. Starling’s colour palette is a balance between the dark blue seriousness of traditional authority and the refreshing, swimming pool turquoise of light-hearted pleasure. 

The use of the blue colour wheel strongly evokes the soothing holism of wellness apps, such as Headspace and Calm, and codes trust as about reassurance, transparency and support. This balance allows Starling to effectively communicate trust to consumers across generational divides. The brand maintains a sense of dependability for older consumers, while also inviting the suggestion of excitement and difference for a younger audience.

3. Trust as independence, and as part of wellbeing

Bó, NatWest’s new digital arm, leads with the message: ‘Do money better’. While the language might be casual and jargon free it is still, at its heart, instructive and authoritarian. This type of disciplinarian command, even when it’s framed by modern, wellness aesthetics, connotes the former banking mode of establishing trust: we know best and you must do as we say.

Starling also employs the casual vernacular ‘feel good’ but takes a far softer, more emotional approach. Trust across multiple categories (eg fitness and wellbeing) is increasingly about establishing legitimacy through demonstrating authentic care for consumers. This is amplified in the eminently gentle: ‘You’re not bad with money. You’re just with the wrong bank’ strapline, which is a significant rearrangement of the relationship between a consumer and their financial services. The word ‘you’re’ combines direct address and the active verb to connote positive affirmation and agency. By explicitly locating the source of financial woes at the feet of the banks, Starling is able to offer financial rehabilitation to consumers and build trust through the idea that the bank, in fact, trusts the consumer. Within Starling’s comms we find holistic ideas around financial health and emotional wellbeing coalescing in one space.

“Starling is taking careful semiotic steps to redefine trust in the financial landscape, coding it as strongly linked to wellness, fluidity and peer-to-peer support.”

Overall, Starling is taking careful semiotic steps to redefine the meaning of trust in the financial landscape, coding it as strongly linked to wellness, fluidity and peer-to-peer support. The brand is achieving this without alienating older consumers by repurposing some established cues of financial trust within a more future-facing context. Starling is making some measured strides in the category coding of trust – but just like in life, in culture, and in semiotics, building trust takes time and work. 

Need help talking trust? Get in touch at: hello@crowdDNA.com