Consumers are by now familiar with pop-up stores, the global ubiquitous retail trend, through which brands aim to create engaging temporary consumer experiences. Shoppers don’t need to look far to find new and innovative pop-ups. Let´s do an experiment: visualise yourself in a pop-up. Imagine being in a store with an emphasis on community spaces, where people are free to socialise, study, hang out, enjoy a coffee, but also have the opportunity to learn and create, with numerous interactive activities and socialising platforms on offer, from app building, 3D printing to graffiti, illustration, hair styling and even speed dating. What sort of a company might be expected to be running such a store? None of the activities described above are what most people would associate with banks, but we are indeed describing a pop-up bank.
Still suffering the ramifications of the 2008 financial crisis, banking has become something of a dirty word for many consumers. A large proportion of young people not only mistrust, but feel disillusioned by the financial industry, with less than a third of 18-24 year olds considering banks to be fair and transparent according to Accenture. Such scepticism has spread as young consumers become savvy to overt advertising techniques used by banks. Indeed, the financial services industry appears to be increasingly out of touch with consumer demands, trends and modern lifestyles. While other industries prioritise connecting with the younger generation through trends and customer convenience solutions, banks are still evidently old fashioned, although they simply cannot afford to lose the younger segments of the market. Michael Anseeuw, Head of Hello bank! in Belgium confirmed that “Belgian banks are severely neglecting this group”, which is why they became one of the first to realise and act upon this, tapping into an unexplored niche through its series of innovative ‘Phygital labs’.


Hello bank! digital table interaction


Hello bank!, BNP Paribas Fortis’ new 100% digital mobile bank, operating in France, Belgium, Germany, Italy and Austria, targets consumers ‘on the go’. Over the course of 2014 and 2015, the bank opened pop-ups throughout Belgium, in Antwerp, Brussels and Liège, under the guidance of Trendwolves, the celebrated youth trend, marketing and consulting agency. The idea behind the stores was to assist clients in understanding the possibilities and convenience of the Hello bank! app. For this project, Trendwolves applied the ´Phygital´ concept, the alliance of physical and digital: the creation of a space where “technology and people meet”. Being purely digital, Hello bank! recognised the need to “bridge the gap between digital and physical” and acknowledged the importance of creating “authentic human relationships” even within a financial environment. The concept was to merge together the offline and online frameworks, as Anseeuw explained: “young people no longer divide their lives into on and offline compartments. Both worlds overlap seamlessly, driven by a whole range of mobile devices and wearables.”
In these unconventional banks or ‘phygital’ labs, visitors were able to enjoy a range of activities. They could test out new technology such as the Oculus Rift, 3D printers and scanners, holograms, face-morphing, wearable devices, interactive walls and the latest game consoles; take part in workshops and classes, from mixing to clothes customisation, mural painting and upcycling. They could attend talks with renowned local figures including an interior designer and a sexologist, view art exhibitions and fashion shows, enjoy music and film events, benefit from smartphone or vinyl repair services, and shop from a selection of new e-commerce start-up retailers. Following the resounding success of the first pop-up in Antwerp (April – June 2014) with over 16.000 visitors, a second ‘phygital’ lab was opened in Brussels (October to December 2014), which attracted over 15.000 visitors, and more recently, in Liège (April – May 2015) visited by over 10.000 people, and more are planned.


Hello bank! interior 2


By involving Trendwolves, an agency outside the sphere of retail to conceive its pop-ups, Hello bank! was able to create a truly original and alternative approach to retail banking. It capitalised on Trendwolves’ extensive research on consumer behaviour and trends, recognising current sentiment towards banking, especially young consumer´s negative attitudes; and by designing a warm and accessible banking retail concept rather than a cold commercial environment, they were able to appeal to even the most cynical and disenchanted clients. Young people’s need to physically connect and interact with one other was central to the conception of the pop-ups. Trendwolves was concerned that individuals don’t want to “talk to brands” but rather amongst themselves on subjects that interest them personally, which is why they developed such an unorthodox series of activities, which were also devised to raise awareness on the importance of digital innovations to serve banking and financial requirements. Still, Hello bank! and Trendwolves were not interested in creating mere flashy one-off experiences to persuade consumers, but instead “get into their system and create a bigger meaning”, which is why each pop-up store was the fruit of collaborations with local, creative individuals and businesses who ran the workshops, designed the furniture and made the space theirs. Despite being temporary, the ‘Phygital’ labs were conceived to create permanent ties with new customers, and were especially driven to support young start-ups through numerous business workshops and coaching. Youth professional development was also a central theme, with career advice available from established professionals to help the youngest customers land their first jobs.
Hello bank!’s ‘phygital labs’ succeeded in resonating with the target audience in an unprecedented manner, and it seems others have taken note. It is becoming more and more evident that companies need to stop dictating consumers’ needs, especially young people, but instead, as Trendwolves suggested, simply “facilitate the conversation.” From that, relationships of trust and positive connections with brands would grow organically. How does this impact the future of retail banking, and retail as a whole? What comes next?
For Anseeuw “mobile banking is the future,” although he stressed that “an offline experience and a physical presence remain important for financial institutions.” But what the ‘phygital’ labs truly demonstrate is that retail concepts are of utmost importance. It seems inevitable that in the near future, consumers will begin to see more and more brands collaborating with companies working on the fringes of retail, that may have a better understanding of the market or consumer needs and behaviour. The Hello bank! labs were undoubtedly a huge success and despite the fact that pop-up stores come and go, this human approach to retail banking could well be here to stay.


Hello bank! interactive screen


Interview with Maarten Leyts, Founder and CEO of Trendwolves

What influenced the pop ups, which were the key elements of the moodboard?

Rawness, imperfection, beta culture, modesty and innovation. We saw it as a continuous ongoing process as well. It was A/B testing all the way. There was an evolution as well and a big difference between the first and last ‘phygital’ lab in terms of design and approach.

Was your non-retail background an advantage for this project?

Probably yes. We didn’t approach this as a typical retail project at all. Concepts should be culturally connected or they fail. A big part of the success of ‘phygital’ labs was that they were co-created together, and in respect with, local creative youngsters so the labs really became something that belonged to them. We noticed as well how important digital education is this days as we organized a lot of non-formal workshops and events in the shop to teach visitors how to benefit from the digital innovations. We see it as the new marketing, brands could play an important role in this.       

What do you think are the implications of the Phygital concept for the future of retail?

On and offline aren’t separate silos and we’ve experienced that bringing them together in the right way can really attract trafffic to a store. We don’t think that physical stores will disappear at all because the human warmth and touch never will be replaced by a digital counterpart. It will be physical and digital, not physical or digital.      

The pop ups have been a great success, but what has been the most surprising response or outcome?

Visitors didn’t see the labs as a bank at all and went into these phygital experiences with a very opened mind. Some of them had a clear financial orientation but the innovative and fun way in which the experiences were offered didn’t stop the visitors of finishing them until the end.


Hello bank! digital table lab

Photos, courtesy of Trendwolves