Marstone: Friend or Foe


One of the biggest competitors that incumbent banks, institutions and advisory firms face today is the Robo Advisor. Fintech startups and apps like Betterment and Wealthfront are giving consumers convenient, seamless access to financial planning using automation and artificial intelligence (AI).

However, one fintech startup is trying to do the exact opposite, putting robo advising technology in the hands of incumbents: Marstone. As a digital, white label robo advisory platform for wealth management, Marstone’s goal is to create branded user experiences that are on par with cutting edge fintech competitors. Towards that end, Marstone recently partnered with fintech leader Fiserv to offer banks that rely on Fiserv for their core processing technology a full suite of robo advisory services under the “Powered by Marstone” moniker.

But exactly how powerful will Marstone be when it comes to helping established institutions? Let’s take a closer look and find out.

The main challenge that Marstone attempts to address for incumbent financial institutions is the speed at which they need to innovate to keep pace with fintech robo-advisory apps and services. Through their existing relationship with Pershing and their partnership with Fiserv, Marstone can provide white label robo advisory services to more institutions across the country that are also Fiserv clients. This includes everything from big banks that are competing with services like Fidelity Go, all the way down to local banks and credit unions.

Marstone develops its AI tech through partnerships with some of the top technology companies, such as IBM Watson. Its platform offers automated holistic account analysis, tailored portfolios and a user experience that feels more like a lifestyle brand than a bank. The goal is to demystify financial decision making for the user, while at the same time solving one of the biggest challenges faced by the industry today: asset retention. There’s currently a massive generational wealth transfer going on, as baby boomers pass their assets onto their children.

Big banks and advisory firms that do not offer the younger generation seamless, cost-effective technology solutions that are competitive with apps like Betterment and Robin Hood risk seeing that money walk out the door as soon as it lands in the hands of millennials. By providing a branded solution developed by Marstone to these younger customers, incumbents give themselves a better chance of retaining those assets.

As robo advisory apps, solutions and platforms continue to enter the market, the struggle for incumbents just getting into the game is differentiation. So, one of the questions for some of Marstone’s future clients is, exactly how different will their robo advisory platform look and feel from everyone else’s? Vanguard and Schwab are already well ahead of the robo advisory game in terms of awareness, so do institutions that licensea white label Powered by Marstone suite of services stand a realistic chance of catching up? And will consumers that use the most popular fintech apps like Betterment and Wealthfront be willing to switch over to a branded robo advisor that they’ve never used before? These are a few of the major question marks (and potential hurdles) that Marstone and their incumbent partners will likely face in the years ahead.

Innovating to keep pace with fintech startups is a huge challenge for big banks, traditional wealth advisories and even smaller credit unions. The cost of internal innovation and development is huge, especially when it comes to complex AI robo advisory solutions. Marstone is helping to alleviate much of that burden, allowing banks to offer competitive robo advisory services without the cost and headache of both development and ongoing maintenance. We see their partnership with Fiserv as a sign of friendship to incumbents, as Marstone will now be able to scale its operation and bring Powered by Marstone white label solutions to even more institutions. This should have a substantial positive impact on customer experience, and asset retention, for clients of Marstone.

Say Goodbye to ‘All Work, No Play’

Many banks today struggle with two concerns related to loyalty, both among customers and employees. Attracting and retaining talented employees, particularly among the younger and tech savvy set, remains difficult for many banks. Commanding customer loyalty is another key issue. What’s known as “gamification,” properly used, can help financial companies address these problems.

In practice, gamification uses techniques learned from video games to reward specific behaviors. Microsoft Corp.’s Xbox console has long rewarded players for their achievements, whether it’s completing a level in the popular Halo series or constructing a sword on Minecraft. A 2007 study by Electronic Entertainment Design and Research, a video game research firm, found that game titles with a greater number of possible achievements sold more copies. It’s a tactic that can work for the banking industry, particularly those desperate to attract millennial employees and customers.

“‘Gamification’ is ultimately a very powerful methodology for increasing customer engagement and ‘stickiness’ to that institution,” says Michael Yeo, a Singapore-based senior market analyst with IDC Financial Insights.

USAA.pngSan Antonio, Texas-based USAA is one financial services company that seems to have gone all-in. The bank’s Savings Coach app rewards members, who earn points and medals for completing challenges, like skipping trips to Starbucks, and transfers the money that would have been spent into a USAA savings account. The standalone app uses voice command technology, and features an animated eagle named Ace, which ties to the company’s logo and military membership. Ace provides bits of financial advice to users. “He’s sort of a stern-sounding dude who scans your transactions” to identify ways to save money, says Neff Hudson, vice president, emerging channels at USAA. Members have saved $400,000 so far through the app, which was introduced in July. In the near future, Hudson says members could earn rewards by using other USAA services, such as financial planning, that establish a more sound financial future for the customer.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that other examples from the world of video games abound in the fintech sector. New York City-based online investing platform Kapitall makes investing a game, where users can earn points by completing educational quests, participating in tournaments or playing investment-related games. These points can be redeemed for items in Kapitall’s online store. LendUp, an online lender based in San Francisco, rewards the good behavior of lessees that make payments on time or take education courses. Points earned by climbing “The LendUp Ladder” translate into a better rate for the borrower.

PaySwag.pngSimilar to LendUp, mobile payment app PaySwag rewards good behavior among a consumer base that may lack good credit and has a greater need for financial education. PaySwag was developed by Reno, Nevada-based Customer Engagement Technologies. “What we’re trying to do is completely change the concept of collections, and build that around a combination of rewards, ‘gamification’ and…education, to help really minimize defaults and get rid of the negativity around collections,” says Max Haynes, the company’s CEO. Intended for high-risk borrowers who may struggle to make payments on time, the white label app partners with lenders and other entities involved in collecting debt.  Users can earn points by watching educational videos or making payments on time. Those points translate into small rewards, like a $5 Amazon gift card. The program also allows some flexibility for the borrower to make changes to their payment plan. By using PaySwag, these organizations aim to establish good financial habits that help users avoid delinquencies—meaning PaySwag’s partners are paid on time. One auto lender saw serious delinquencies of more than 30 days drop by 50 percent over a one-year period, says Haynes.

USAA works with Badgeville, a Redwood City, California-based “gamification” solution provider. In addition to adding savings games for customers, USAA is in the early stages of using similar methods to better engage and motivate employees.

According to Karen Hsu, Badgeville’s vice president of marketing, the purpose is “to change behavior and motivate, really motivate people, and it’s to motivate to perform better year after year.” She says video game techniques can help speed up the onboarding process for new employees, and continue training and education efforts. Employees can provide each other with positive encouragement and real-time feedback, and earn points for answering a coworker’s question or sharing educational materials, like an article. “It’s hard to physically give everybody the time they need, and being able to give that instant feedback is really important,” says Hsu. Employees can also be encouraged to develop skills and expertise in certain areas, or to meet specific criteria that help the institution’s efforts to cross-sell products and services.

USAA has five projects in the works using video game methods, and more on the drawing board. “I really think we need to look at this as a set of tactics that can make the products that we offer our members and consumers better,” says Hudson. As expectations change to meet the demands of younger generations, “gamification” could provide a strategic advantage to banks creative enough to use it.