How neobanks are making a play for Gen Z’s wallets

FinTechs are racing to build early banking relationships with the world's most connected generation

Teenagers laying on floor using technology. Getty Images
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For better or worse, Generation Z has grown up with the world at their fingertips. When online is the default state and information is merely a voice command away, why should Gen Z consumers, born from the mid-1990s to the early 2010s, settle for anything less than instant convenience? Particularly when it comes to something as important as managing their money.

In this regard, Swapnil Nair is typical of the "Zoomer" generation. The 20-year-old former Dubai resident is a client account support professional at SilverDoor, a hospitality company in London. Mr Nair banks with HSBC in the UK and with three FinTechs: Monzo, Starling and Revolut.

Also referred to as challenger banks or neobanks, these FinTechs serve Mr Nair's needs better than the traditional bank he grew up with in the UAE, he says. Their apps are more intuitive, he was able to open an account almost instantaneously and transactions are posted to his account in real time.

“Neobanks are native to the digital age and offer seamless financial services on the mobile platforms that I use on every day,” he says.

Mr Nair draws a comparison between the way both types of companies deal with consumers.

“At HSBC, I had to make an appointment for opening an account, which can only happen during banking hours when people either have work or classes. I then had to take all my documentation to the bank [and carry it around the rest of the day] and spend an hour opening an account.

"When learning about Monzo, I instantly made an account using their app and digital document verification. Once the account was open, I could immediately start using the card via Gpay and Samsung Pay rather than waiting for the physical card to arrive.”

Mr Nair uses neobanks for paying his household bills and Tube journeys while becoming a fan of the features available within their apps.

“These banks provide the product that best supports me. They have ringfencing features that allow me to automatically keep money aside on pay day for recurring expenses such as bills and subscriptions. They also instantly reflect any transactions in my account, which not all traditional banks do,” he says.

FinTech start-ups first emerged in the wake of the 2007-2009 financial crisis. The ensuing shakeup of banking regulations and the onset of technologies have enabled challengers to disrupt the market with consumer-friendly services: shorter account opening times, faster peer-to-peer transfers, credit building or pay-day loans.

Neobanks are native to the digital age and offer seamless financial services on the mobile platforms that I use on every day
Swapnil Nair, Gen Z

Some traditional financial institutions have responded to the neobank challenge, including in the Middle East. Banks such as ADCB, Emirates NBD and Mashreq were quick to launch digital-forward operations with Hayyak, Liv and Mashreq Neo, respectively.

According to a tracker by The Financial Brand publication, there are at least 333 neobanks worldwide, including start-ups and digital-only operations from legacy players.

“The future of customer finance is being shaped by FinTech and digital banking. There is a whole new class of banking customers moving away from traditional banking methods. Products’ simplicity, price and accessibility are becoming crucial indicators able to meet customers’ needs. The user experience has become a primary emphasis,” says Jelena Janjusevic, an associate professor at the School of Social Sciences at Heriot-Watt University Dubai.

Regulations remain a major hurdle for financial start-ups. That is because most licences do not differentiate between the different-use cases, such as whether the company focuses on a single solution or offers multiple services, according to Vineet Madan, a strategy and business development adviser to regional FinTechs.

“In the Mena region, the requirements in terms of capital, IT, security and so on are more or less the same. This becomes a big challenge for niche FinTechs who are either forced to white-label their products to large incumbents or compromise on valuation significantly to raise the capital they need to go on their own,” says Mr Madan, the former UAE head of retail banking at Banque Misr.

Nevertheless, 2021 saw the launches of Yap, a digital finance app that partnered with RAKBank, Rabbit, a “FunTech” app from Dubai Islamic Bank, and Zand, which caters to both retail and corporate clients.

Only one new digital-only bank, Amwali, launched by Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank, specifically targets Gen Z.

Current regulations are a major hurdle for financial start-ups because most licences don’t differentiate between the different use cases
Vineet Madan, strategy and business development adviser to regional FinTechs

Considered the most tech-savvy generation, Zoomers are more connected than any preceding generation and want banking solutions through cool, interactive apps on their phones.

Their predecessors, Gens Y and X, by contrast, may often bank with the legacy brands and see neobanks as ancillary services.

At 2.5 billion people, Gen Z accounted for 46 per cent of the global population in 2021. As the largest population group, they also have the fastest-growing income – despite their youth. In the US, Zoomers could expect to see their income grow five-fold over the next decade to around $33 trillion by 2030, according to the Bank of America.

“Even the world’s best FinTechs and neobanks have not really looked at Gen Z as their primary customer. This is because most of them still follow a one-size-fits-all approach, which just doesn’t work for Gen Z, who are exposed to tech and understand how it can benefit their lives,” Mr Madan says.

Gen Z wants financial services that are customised to their lives and needs, such as personal financial management, micro-lending, robo-advisory investment features and an intuitive user-friendly experience, he adds.

Traditionally, banks have focused on serving customers that are financially independent, he says, and Zoomers’ income levels are only just beginning to offer the kind of profit that make for viable businesses. However, that is beginning to change, according to Mr Madan.

A new wave of FinTechs is stepping in to fill the gap. Their aim is to enable Gen Z’s financial transactions in the digital economy, while also onboarding new customers who could be loyal over the long term.

Among the more prominent players targeting younger consumers globally are RoosterMoney, GoHenry, Osper, FamPay and Step. These apps typically come with a debit card and the ability to transfer money among friends. Seattle-based Copper, for example, offers teenagers a digital bank account linked to 50,000 ATMs, a personalised debit card and ability to make peer-to-peer transfers.

Some players offer additional services aimed at building fiscal responsibility. For $4.99 a month, Atlanta-based Greenlight offers debit cards for kids and parents can create in-app chore lists for children and tie the work to perks.

Berlin-based Wajve is positioning itself as Germany’s go-to app for teens, offering educational insights alongside accessible student loans. The app secured €5 million ($5.6m) in seed funding in June and has more than 100,000 registered students.

Here in the Middle East, the Savii app launched in Bahrain this week with plans for Saudi Arabia and the UAE this year, says co-founder Jane Harvey. The FinTech has just closed its pre-seed round of investment and is now looking for investors to take the business to the next level.

“Gen Z don’t necessarily resonate with traditional banks, or ‘banking’ as a concept, because they represent money-hungry institutions that aren’t aligned with the socially responsible ideals of this particular generation,” Ms Harvey says.

“With Savii, we are reinventing what banking means to this generation and we have the opportunity to build the banking experience from the ground up. Gen Z are looking for transparency and authenticity, not a 100-year-old legacy.”

Savii now offers teens a digital banking app where they send and request money from their friends in real-time, access discounts and rewards from retail brands and save towards longer-term goals. Its next update will add a digital wallet and a debit card and hopes to enable peer-to-peer transfers.

The company wants to be a teen’s first “bank” account and spending card, co-founder Nichola Collinson says. “Coming from the UK, we take it for granted that you can open a bank account and get a debit card from most high street banks from the age of 13. There, teens typically have a small amount of income they can manage themselves. This is such a valuable opportunity in life to learn from your money mistakes on a small scale.

"Teens in this region don’t have that same opportunity. They are thrown into the world of banking when they reach 18 or 21 and don’t fully understand or appreciate how it works. When banks start to bombard you with [offers for] credit cards and loans, it’s very easy to land in financial trouble if you don’t understand basic principles such as compound interest,” she explains.

“With Savii, we wanted to build a product that would be that safe space where youth can take responsibility for their own money and make small money mistakes early on, but also start to build good money habits before they head off to university or enter the real world.”

The neobank is working with an advisory board of teenagers and young people to build products that resonate. Board members challenge business insights, guide product design and help build the product, and suggest ways to advance financial independence among GCC youth.

“Savii is a product designed by youth, for youth,” says Omaima Mosharaf, 18, who sits on Savii's advisory board. The young Bahraini social entrepreneur is founder of YouthWave Mena, a sustainable innovation hub.

“Many teenagers like me are cued into what is going on in finance and want to be a part of the ecosystem. We want to become active consumers and financial education to become more accessible. But what our generation lacks is practice, so this is a great beginning for what needs to be changed. That’s where Savii comes in.”

Partnering with licensed and regulated banking partners in each market means Savii is able to do without a banking licence, but consumers’ funds remain protected.

Teens are thrown into the world of banking when they reach 18 or 21 and don’t fully understand or appreciate how it works
Nichola Collinson, co-founder, Savii

The need to acquire a local partner in each market has been a major hurdle to expansion. Yet, Ms Collinson points to changes as many payment processors begin establishing partnerships with issuing banks with a view to providing banking as a service, a business model that facilitates the execution of financial services over the internet.

But how do FinTechs build credibility among Gen Z? After all, traditional banks largely maintain their strength on the credibility of their brand. Neobanks simply don’t have the same track record.

FinTechs will strengthen their trustworthiness as they grow, Ms Mosharaf says. “FinTechs can build their credibility by providing us what we’re looking for, increasing awareness and emphasising safety and security, which is one of the biggest concerns,” she says.

As a consumer unaffiliated with the sector, Mr Nair still sees a need for legacy players, such as his parents’ bank. “I admit there is a way to go in earning my trust. I still maintain a savings account in a traditional bank and just use the neobanks as a current account.”

In banking as in life, tradition and modernity will continue to co-exist for some time yet.

Updated: January 27, 2022, 5:00 AM