Putting the Smile back into banking


How do you reinvigorate a brand? It's less magic than you'd think: first, understand the user and business needs, then design, test and iterate.

How did we do?

Offbeam, quirky, intriguing, attractive, cool
New, fun, interactive
Quirky, bright and clearly for Smile

The challenge

In 1999 a maverick emerged in the highly-regulated, suited-and-booted banking industry. Smile was a pioneer – the UK’s first internet bank.

But as time passed it became one of many. Struggling to differentiate, its proposition needed an overhaul.

In 2016 Smile’s parent company, The Co-operative Bank asked cxpartners to craft a new visual identity that would help re-invigorate the brand.

Our brand discovery research confirmed that Smile's visual identity needed serious repairs
Boring, bland, dry
Dull, boring, safe
Business-like, informative

Our approach

Brand development that’s grounded in user research

The traditional Ta-da! method of developing brand identities is prone to expensive errors because it relies on alchemy and the charisma of a creative lead.

We've developed an effective, evidence-based alternative – an approach that’s grounded in user research and road-tested through design. We used this methodology to de-risk the project for Smile, giving them confidence that their investment would deliver results.

Naturally, we started by speaking to Smile's customers (to understand why they loved the bank) and prospective customers (to discover what they were looking for). We ran workshops with stakeholders that challenged them to articulate the ethos, proposition and personality of the business.

This deep understanding of both user and business needs provided solid foundations for the refresh.

Principles create character

The challenge was to create a visual identity that aligned with the brand's core values and differentiated it from its competitors.

It’s a deceptively simple-sounding request that's all too easy to get wrong (just ask Tropicana).

We rejected supposition and alchemy in favour of evidence from user research, which we used firstly to create some guiding principles that we could take into the design phase.

Rather than feeling constrained by a set of rules, the principles were liberating, pushing us towards a bolder, more experimental style. We explored using motion to help express the nuances of Smile's brand personality.

We developed initial concepts and a series of iterations that honed the direction. User feedback helped us refine the style and validated we were hitting the right tone so that we could once again set Smile apart from the homogeny of other banks.

We created brand principles to steer decisions about design and content

A cross-functional team, a coherent experience

From font selection to image treatment, we crafted a design system that could be used to express personality and engage customers online and offline. We created simple graphic rules to give the visual language structure, hierarchy and consistency.

Our creative ideas didn’t emerge in glorious isolation; they were honed by a tightly-knit, cross-functional team made up of an art director, an interaction designer, a developer and a copywriter. This team worked together to solve real customer needs across a number of key journeys.

As the design language matured it became clear that movement would play a huge role. Tuned into the whole customer experience, our team could spot the right moments to use memorable quirks and playful gestures.

These team members brought a diverse range of skills to bear on the problem and challenged each other's ideas. Because of the depth of the collaboration, the design language feels integral to the user experience, not a layer or theme that has been tacked on.

Road-tested, ready for execution

As you'd expect from a brand development project, we created a design system that included typographic scales, colour usage rules, responsive grids, spacing guides and motion principles. And we wrote guidelines to help the Smile team successfully deploy the new visual language in the future.

But here's the difference. While brand guidelines often set false expectations, promising perfection but proving impossible to apply in practice, Smile's new visual identity emerged through functional design. We knew it would work as intended because we'd road-tested it ourselves.

Stu Charlton

We can help your customers connect with your brand

To chat about how we can help, contact stu.charlton@cxpartners.co.uk

Or read more about how we help our clients innovate successfully in the financial services sector.