By Ellie Smith

50 years since Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, the European challenger banks are making giant leaps of their own kind.

With unicorn valuations aplenty, record funding rounds and even TV ad campaigns, it’s inevitable that the likes of Monzo, Revolut and N26 have now set their coordinates for the US.

Are we witnessing the beginnings of fintech’s own space race as European challenger banks compete to be the first to launch to the US market?

Let’s go back to the late 50s-early 60s for a second. US-Soviet tensions are heating up against the backdrop of the Cold War. And space exploration is just another arena for both nations to play out their social and political differences.

Things come to a climax in 1961 when JFK publically announces ambitious plans for the US to land a man safely on the moon before the end of the decade. The race for space is on.

Fast forward to 2019 and the financial services sector. Just last month, we saw Tom Blomfield, founder of Monzo, formally announce the UK fintech challenger’s plans to launch in the US.

And Monzo’s rivals, such as business-focused Starling, payments app Revolut and German financial technology start-up N26, are close behind with their flight path set to the same destination.

Certainly, it looks like Monzo are leading the race, with its digital banking app already available to the US retail banking market.

But while these customers will have access to features like instant payment notifications, no-fee current accounts and in-app money management tools, Monzo’s growth is limited until the tech unicorn is granted a full US banking license.

And what’s more, it’s not just about being the first to launch, but what you do once you get there.

In 1969, the moon landing marked an unforgettable day in the lives of not only the US population but the whole world. It’s the story that captivated the imagination of millions of people and cultivated arguably one of the most quoted phrases in history.

And yet, Apollo 11’s mission was by no means the first notable achievement in terms of space exploration of the 20th century.

What nobody seems to remember is that in 1957, the Soviets successfully launched the first satellite to ever orbit the Earth into space. In 1959, the Soviet space program took another step forward with the launch of Luna 2, the first space probe to hit the moon. And in April 1961, the Soviet astronaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to orbit Earth.

This is not to take away from the fact that the moon landing was a crowning achievement that propelled the world into a new era of space exploration. But what European challenger banks can learn from the moon landing is this: it’s the storytelling, not the tech, that captures imaginations.

At the heart of it, space exploration and challenger banks are both driven by the latest developments in technology. And while competition for better tech is crucial, in order to win the race for the US, these fintechs will need to communicate the value of their brand and what differentiates them from competitors beyond this in order to really take off.

(Remember that, despite their successes in Europe, these fintech challengers are as good as extra-terrestrial to the US market.)

And so, it seems the question of which European challenger will be the first to launch in the US extends beyond banking licenses and implementing the latest tech. Perhaps, the question we should be asking instead is who will be the first to capture the imaginations of US banking customers?



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