In three years there will be a movie released, starring Jonah Hill. It’s about an ambitious and successful PR executive for an exciting new electronic payment system called “Ares” that’s set to revolutionize the way that people buy things with their phones. The name choice for the brand is made by a small and forceful CEO with an obsession with Greek mythology and LARPING, played by Danny DeVito.
Ares isn’t doing that great as a payment company. They backed the wrong horse technologically, have failed to excite the public and have experienced a few directional SNAFUs with ill conceived publicity stunts re-enacting scenes from 300 in a shopping mall in Denver, but they are finally on the cusp of going bigtime. Danny DeVito utters the line… “nothing can stop us now”.
While Ares has been focusing on winning hearts and minds in the US, another Ares has had a similar idea in the Middle East – “Al Reprehensible Extremist Sect”. This Ares is taking over great swathes of Syria and Iraq through anti-Western sentiment and a significant amount of bloodshed.
Faced with a PR disaster (who wants to be reminded of torture and execution when paying for groceries?), Danny De Vito insists that Jonah Hill heads to the Middle East to commence talks with the leader of Ares, accompanied by a plucky British payments analyst (probably played by Simon Pegg). Through various high jinks and inexplicable random acts, the sect leader embraces Western payments and ends up taking a position as CMO at one of the top 5 US FIs, Jonah Hill wins the day and the British payments analyst elopes with a camel.
Reality is very often stranger than fiction. In terms of things that Isis really didn’t see coming, having your brand kidnapped by a terrorist network with a better social media presence is probably not one of them. I really don’t know where they go from here. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a PR disaster in recent times that could be worse. Okay, the infamous US Airways tweet was pretty bad, but even that didn’t take over the entire brand name in the way that Isis is now experiencing. Given the level of concern that Isis currently has (a survey is going round their users to assess the extent of the damage) and the already shaky ground that they have been on for a few years (how much money have AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon burnt on this already?), I expect there to be a do-over, with a new name and a fresh start at relaunching. In the meantime, a couple of thoughts on launching a payment company…
- Acronyms are dangerous. If you’re thinking of giving your company a short name of three or four letters, then a cursory search on Wikipedia might be a good idea to make sure you’re aren’t sharing it with a gastrointestinal parasite or white supremacist group. The Electronic Transactions Association shares their acronym with a Basque separatist group, but they seem to get away with that because no one in the US knows or cares about a small enclave between France and Spain and besides, Jason Oxman is very nice.
- Don’t pick a name that sounds symbolic, particularly of historic struggles. If we have learnt anything in recent years, it’s that terrorists love symbolism and pick names like Al Qaida and Taliban for that reason. Instead, choose a name that is benign and pedestrian, like Kabbage or Oink. Clearly no self respecting terrorist network would want to be called Oink. Or BlingNation.
- Think globally, act globally. Could Isis have anticipated this? Actually, yes. This has been simmering in the background of global news for a couple of years, but they’ve been so wrapped up with getting people on their network that collective myopia has placed them where they are today.
Schadenfreude? A little. But I think there is still time for Isis to recover and they still might have a place at the table when NFC finally happens in around 2018. And PayPal* didn’t get burnt that badly with the recent crises in the Catholic church despite their name…
*PayPal / Papal. Geddit?
I had the pleasure of speaking at NextBankUSA in Boston the other week on the Future of Payments, as I see them. It was a fun event, and provided some latitude to go off topic a little, including one of my favorite British comedy skits on Chip and PIN. Okay, I found it much funnier than the audience but that happens to me a lot. What can I say? I crack myself up.
The crux of my presentation being… “Chip and PIN” had no idea that they would inadvertently launch “Fish and Cushion” and that goes for the payments industry as a whole. Huge assumptions have been made that the architecture that exists today, and has done for decades (card / POS / checkout) will remain intact as we shift to EMV, which will hypothetically maintain the status quo for current ecosystem players when the mythical NFC payments unicorn arrives in around 2018. This assumption is broken on so many levels – EMV (or, using the colloquialism Chip and PIN) backers assume that technology innovation will somehow take a nap for the next four years and that disruptive newcomers will sit idly in the wings until the requisite EMV card and POS penetration reaches a palatable level of traction. I think we’re ripe for “Fish and Cushion”. Meaning – a totally unexpected and counterintuitive success from an outsider that will broadside the incumbents. I think that the delivery of “Fish and Cushion” will come not from Apple, or Google, or Isis, or Facebook, or Square. I think it will come from Amazon. Here’s why…
While Apple has been touting “innovation” the last couple of years as a longer, or thinner, or more colorful device, while Google has been discovering that merchants aren’t going to give up SKU data easily, while Square has been facing the realization that their cash cow of free mag stripe readers has an expiration date (October 2015), while Facebook has been transitioning to your uncle’s social network and while Isis has been doing whatever they’ve been doing (taking over swathes of Syria and Iraq?), Amazon has been tinkering away with relentlessly removing friction from not just payments, but the entire retail experience. And this is the epiphany that the payments industry has yet to reach – as far as consumers are concerned, payments don’t need fixing. The retail experience does.
I used the “Fastlane” analogy for US retail at NextBank. Travel on any US highway for a distance and you’ll come across a toll and you will be faced with one of two scenarios. First scenario… you’re paying with cash and have to grind to a halt, quite possibly behind a long line of other vehicles that have ground to a halt. Second scenario… you’ve pre-registered with your local state for a FastLane transponder, have your payment credentials stored in the cloud and have luxury of passing through the toll at 60mph. Mag stripe and EMV are scenario one. NFC, BLE beacons and other wireless protocols applied to retail are scenario two. Amazon is an entirely different scenario – the roadtrip equivalent to teleportation… you don’t travel to the destination, the destination travels to you.
Amazon has been relentless in shifting from the electronic equivalent of a mail order catalog to a viable contender to all forms of brick and mortar retailer by focusing on what consumers want… anything they want in the world at rock bottom prices delivered to their doorstep in a timeframe that is compelling. Speed is being addressed by services such as Prime that deliver goods within two days or less to the home. Two days is a bit long for the dopamine release of an impulse purchase, so Amazon is addressing this with pre-emptive shipping of wish list items to dropship locations near you. They have also mentioned the use of drone delivery, although this one looks more than a little sci-fi for now (along with providing inspiration for a brand new sport I’ll call for now “Skeet Shopping”). In short though, the barrier of speed for online purchasing via Amazon is sufficiently truncated to negate a trip to the mall. Available products are almost limitless, given Amazon’s connection to third party retailers across the globe, and broadening from books, electronics and clothing to more mundane items like diapers, condiments and, in my case, cans of tuna fish. No, I can’t quite do my grocery shopping on Amazon yet, but it’s getting damn close.
And then this week, news of the Amazon Fire Phone went public, and with that news of Firefly. Granted, proof of the pudding and all that, but the concept of Firefly as a conduit for connecting physical world items to a retail store in the cloud is inspirational. I should have a Fire Phone to play with next month and I’ll keep you updated on the experience.
Amazon seems to be truly connecting the dots here and while the payments industry struggles with collective myopia around EMV, they have seen the future of payments, and indeed retail transcends cards, the point of sale and even retail stores at all. Amazon is arguably, IMHO, “Fish and Cushion”.