Zelle doubles down on its un-Venmo strategy

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The bank-powered P-to-P app Zelle officially launched in June with a mostly consistent brand across all of its bank partners, but it still struggles with awareness over PayPal's Venmo, which doesn't share its advantage of living inside banks' mobile apps.

A bit of a marketing boost could change that. Zelle on Monday launched a multi-million dollar marketing campaign through ad agency Huge, which has worked with Zelle in the past on user experience and other strategies. The campaign is targeting consumers between 18 and 54, though it's more focused on the 35-54 part of that segment — an older audience than the one that favors its rival Venmo.

"We're are looking to change consumers' behavior," said Rose Corvo, chief administrative officer at Early Warning, the bank-led company that owns and operates the Zelle P-to-P network. "What we're after is to make sure these people have an awareness of an alternative to cash and checks."

The P-to-P app Venmo gained early ground by appealing to millennials in its design; the Venmo app has more in common with Twitter than with mobile banking. Apple will soon follow Venmo's lead by offering a P-to-P capability within its iMessage platform.

Zelle has been criticized for not doing more to connect its brand to the needs of a technology-savvy audience, and for not including some of the social bells and whistles that Venmo relies on to reiterate the "network" aspects of transferring funds to one's peers.

But Zelle's backers have shown a desire to go for the audience that Venmo misses, and for this reason its strategy can't rely on the same tools Venmo uses. Corvo described the lack of consumer awareness as being more about digital P-to-P transfers than Zelle itself, saying recognition was in the "high single digits" in the 35-54 group. "The category itself does not have a high awareness level," Corvo said.

The Zelle name is a relatively new addition to the marketing strategy. The service was called clearXchange for years, though this wasn't necessarily meant to be a consumer-facing brand. Zelle is concise enough to perhaps become a "verb" — in the same way Google has — to forge a consistent identity that would demonstrate its ubiquity among banks.

It's important for the Zelle brand to catch on, since the banks view Zelle's rails as a means to power other financial services and cross-bank collaboration. The Zelle network covers more than half of the U.S. online banking market.

Zelle's new marketing push will start in digital and social channels before expanding to TV and print early next year, with a focus on how P-to-P works. The Zelle campaign is distinct from campaigns that some member banks are running to promote P-to-P transfers, such as Bank of America and Chase's current campaigns, which include references to Zelle while focusing more on each individual bank's brand.

"[The banks] are promoting Zelle very efficiently where the eyeballs are known to be, inside mobile banking, which is used by the millennial demographic as much as daily," said Richard Crone, a payments consultant. "Zelle is riding the coattails of their bank owners and the popularity of their owners’ branded mobile banking apps. That is where the trust is, in the bank."

The Zelle campaign's design is agnostic to any single bank. "The colors can't look like any one bank," Corvo said.

The creative will also make use of rhymes and reasons — "pay the intern for lunch, he’ll thank you a bunch" — to resonate with users, according to Corvo.

"Rhyming has a great recall to it," Corvo said. "So you'll see this in the digital and through the expansion into other media."

The promotional campaign by Zelle is intended to provide “air support” to new users of the service, according to Crone, because each individual bank’s brand is not known for ubiquity.

"Zelle’s promotional positioning is all about ubiquity," Crone said.

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P-to-P payments Mobile payments Zelle