Winning over savvy consumers in banks' credit card race

Mobile access, easy redemption process and ties with well-loved brands are big plus points

A lot has been said about millennials and their lifestyle habits and preferences. Brands are constantly strategising how they can better reach and engage these digital-first consumers.

With millennials making up 22 per cent of Singapore's resident population, it is no surprise that businesses find themselves under pressure to rethink everything, be it in the way their products and services are marketed, or how talent can be recruited and retained.

But businesses do themselves injustice if they limit their attention to this demographic.

It is not just millennials who crave meaningful experiences, are comfortable with smartphones or love online shopping.

Millennials may have been the original trailblazers, but these lifestyle preferences are now embraced by most, if not all, consumers across all demographics.

In the personal finance category, these trends are already playing out beyond the millennial segment.

Our recent survey on credit card preferences, which targeted Singaporeans between 21 and 39, reveals patterns that can be applied to any next-generation or millennial-minded consumer.

This is important because the findings have implications for banks which will need to do things differently to effectively promote their credit card offerings to consumers today.

Our research shows that more people (a 5 per cent increase) were researching online before getting a credit card in 2016, compared with the previous year. We can expect to see an upward trend as mobile phone adoption rates continue to climb in Singapore.

The same survey also reveals a rise in online credit card applications, with 52 per cent of respondents opting for this method over roadshows (26 per cent).

To that end, credit card comparison sites have been rated as increasingly influential in helping consumers make decisions.

But the roadshow model may not be obsolete any time soon, because Singapore consumers are mostly omni-channel buyers.

As costs of retail space and labour continue to increase in Singapore, banks will be pressured to explore more the use of digital channels other than their own to connect with consumers through every conceivable channel, including personal finance comparison websites.

Millennials have been using their credit cards most frequently for online shopping and dining (24 per cent for both categories), as compared with paying for petrol and bills (5 per cent and 3 per cent respectively).

It is unsurprising then to see the rise of reward programmes such as LiveUp that incentivise consumers with attractive shopping and dining discounts.

It is only a question of "when" - not "if" - before we see banks teaming up with a wide suite of e-commerce brands to offer users rebates and promotions.

Although travel expenses made up the highest expenditures on their credit cards, 71 per cent of respondents preferred cashback benefits, making it the most preferred credit card benefit category.

Air miles were significantly less popular, at only 20 per cent.

This points to the level of ease in which a customer can unlock a reward. Redeeming air miles typically involves a longer administrative process, but cashback is comparatively hassle-free.

If barriers to enjoying rewards are kept as low as possible, and registration is a fast and painless process, then consumers will have a valuable experience.

A fundamental truth that bears repeating is that mobile is ubiquitous. Brands have to be accessible and optimised on mobile if they want to engage their customers.

This is no longer a nice-to-have feature, but a baseline expectation from consumers today.

Our survey shows that most millennials in Singapore own an average of four credit cards each.

So it can certainly be confusing to keep track of the different credit card benefits and features.

In fact, 45 per cent of those surveyed would prefer an app that could aggregate the benefits, merchant-specific deals and promotions of each credit card.

It is encouraging to see that most banks have their own mobile apps to facilitate mobile banking.

But it would be a misstep if banks do not extend the same ease of mobile access to their credit card rewards programmes.

There is a loyalty programme war going on, and banks need to question if their credit card rewards strategy is just humdrum, or if it truly connects with customers.

Ultimately, in this day and age where Singapore consumers are spoilt for choice, we believe users are going to focus on credit cards that offer a painless redemption experience and connect them to brands they truly need and like.

• Vinod Nair is the chief executive of personal finance comparison site

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 23, 2017, with the headline 'Winning over savvy consumers in banks' credit card race'. Print Edition | Subscribe