Ambitious efforts by two U.K. banks to become trusted advisers in all aspects of consumers' lives have fallen short.
Natwest Group and First Direct, a division of HSBC Group, have redirected projects begun 18 months ago in which they fielded questions and dispensed advice, often on concerns far removed from their area of expertise, personal finance and banking.
Customers of Natwest's Zenda service and First Direct's Octopus service solicited help with gardening, importing cars, installing electrical equipment, planning weddings, and even cleaning algae from their fish ponds.
The transition from managing people's money to managing their lifestyles was intended to project an image of the banks as experts that could help consumers in any matter.
The concept has started to trickle into the United States, as banks like Wells Fargo & Co., Bank of America Corp., and FleetBoston Financial Corp. plan to offer nonfinancial services, especially for small-business and corporate customers. Wells, for example, will offer travel, human resource, and legal services on its Web site for small businesses. Others are exploring the idea of offering mortgage-related services, such as help with moving arrangements, on their sites.
But the track record of banks going beyond financial services has proven poor, at least in the United Kingdom.
Natwest and First Direct ultimately decided that social organizing did not fit in with their core businesses. Natwest scuttled its trial of Zenda in November. Last month First Direct spun off Octopus into an independent company in which it might become an investor.
Zenda had charged customers $23 a month for various services, including a personalized guide to entertainment, a diary and reminder service, instant answers on favorite topics, and information on purchasing decisions. For example, the service would inform customers by e-mail about delays on their train lines.
David Outhwaite, a spokesman for Natwest in London, said the company got "useful learnings" from piloting the service with 1,500 customers, but "we never pursued it to full rollout."
Some features of Zenda are now being considered for Natwest's online and mobile banking services. For example, alerts to warn customers of insufficient balances are now being tested with mobile banking customers, Mr. Outhwaite said. "Zenda was not by any means considered a failure," he said.
First Direct ran Octopus for 18 months before reassessing its role. "This was not its core business, and so First Direct decided to outsource it," said Gill Maguire, marketing director of Octopus, of Leeds, England, and formerly the marketing innovation manager at First Direct.
The new Octopus, available by telephone and at www.thinkoctopus.com, has been "a lot busier" since it was spun off from First Direct, Ms. Maguire said. Octopus was not a top priority at First Direct and did not receive adequate resources, she said. It signed "only a couple of thousand" customers, most of whom were First Direct customers.
First Direct had charged between $5 and $45 for different Octopus services.
Octopus is "a proposition with great potential," Ms. Maguire said. "Some people delegate their lives to us."
The questions Octopus can answer, according to its Web site, include: "Can you provide me with details of companies who could arrange to transfer music tracks from a 78-vinyl record onto compact disc?" and "I need information on helicopter rides on Valentine's Day."
"People value going to one place they can trust," Ms. Maguire said.
But banks should not attempt to become those places, observers say.
"Consumer resistance to paying for online content does not bode well for subscription information services run by banks," said Nick Jones, commerce analyst at Jupiter Communications in London. Consumers expect information on the Web to be free, he said.
Banks should focus on offering personal financial information services, Mr. Jones said. "As repositories of consumers' financial data, the banks could run personal financial management software over the information and advise consumers accordingly."
Brook Newcomb, a senior analyst at Forrester Research, said U.S. banks that expanded into lifestyle management would have to compete against broad-based portals like America Online.
"I don't think consumers would go to banks to find out information about a restaurant or to check the weather," he said. "Our view is that broad-based answers aren't a good fit for financial firms."
Joel Friedman, a general partner at Andersen Consulting Ventures, said Natwest's trial with Zenda was "a noble experiment, but I'm not surprised it pulled the plug."
In Natwest's efforts to add value, he said, Zenda was an attempt "to deepen the household relationship by becoming a personal valet which is not overly valuable to consumers."
It was "a tough sell," Mr. Friedman said.
On the other hand, the Octopus offering "was not quite compelling enough to make a difference."
U.S. banks that are moving into the account aggregation space will have a "more logical position with consumers," he said.
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