What does vaporwave, a digital aesthetic born in the 2010s, have to do with banking?

Everything, for a fintech firm trying to visually distinguish itself from traditional firms.

In the early 2010s, vaporwave, a new digital aesthetic and microgenre, emerged from an interest in the 80s and 90s early internet culture and retro consumer advertisements. More than just a music genre firmly rooted and emergent solely through the internet, vaporwave plays into consumerist fears and responds to the oversaturation of advertisements in daily life. These themes and feelings emerge as an aesthetic emulating the early 90s internet with old Windows branding, video game graphics and VHS tapes, alongside neoclassical busts and columns, digital sunsets and neon colors gleaned from the underside of a CD. A time bygone and yet nostalgic all the same.

A handful of fintech companies have adapted this aesthetic to appeal to younger, internet-first generations and distinguish themselves from traditional banks. Cash App is the best example of this fintech marketing strategy, and one that uses a strong vaporwave product campaign. The firm made its name on P2P transfers but has since expanded into banking, brokerage and even tax filing. (CI covered the Cash App in-depth in a Fintech Monitor report.) The firm claims to be an “app for every money move.” An all-in-one easy to use platform, and more importantly, a product designed to make financial moves feel as contained as the internet once used to be.

Cash App Homepage

Greek columns, purple-pink hues and influx of consumerist imagery recalls a time spent on the early internet

About 39% of the users of Cash App, the largest group of app users, are young adults who would recall growing up in vibrant internet spaces, and at the same time experienced an influx of the sort of imagery vaporwave plays off of. Cash App fully leans into these aesthetics. The vibrant landing page pops neon pink and purple hues, with some classical 3-D columns but also floating futuristic shapes and bubbling vibrant flowers. Each graphic represents a different product within the financial firm’s repertoire. With little to no real-life photography and large bold text, the firm captures attention of their target audience like a vaporwave flashmob.

Product Positioning/Value Proposition – An Aesthetic Payoff?

With Cash App’s desktop landing page, the user immediately sees a constantly looping video, with neon colors and vaporwave icons in the background of a large font stating “Do more with your money.” Since the product primarily lives and operates on the mobile app, the firm immediately nudges the viewer to download Cash App on their phone. Along the top of the page, the firm presents a banner advertising their new debit card design—the Glitter Card, yet another nudge with a nostalgic throwback. The firm places their value proposition consistently throughout their site, with large fonts declaring how Cash App can help the user and setting themselves apart from the competition. Along with an easily navigable menu with embedded images further leading to pages describing the product, the Cash App public site draws in their audience. (The app itself is comparatively minimalist.)

Cash App’s public site is certainly not anything like the Bank of America or Chase landing pages. The information is limited and relies on drawing people in through the imagery rather than text-heavy claims. Since fintechs usually have fewer products, they turn to an aesthetic campaign that highlights these through focused advertisements.

To understand the difference, let’s consider the pages for the Cash App Debit Card, the Greenlight Debit Card and the Bank of America Debit Card.

Cash App’s vaporwave look

Cash App Banking Page

As previously noted, the Cash App Bank page loads with large font claims and consistent vaporwave imagery carrying throughout the long scroll site. The firm does not include any real-life photographs or stock imagery, and instead plays into the digitally generated graphics while promoting the debit card placed precariously on 3-D classical columns throughout. The page consists of different value proposition claims and positions their card as the sole card needed to bank with statements such as “banking made better” and “a card unlike any other.” At the bottom of the page the firm presents additional information about the card such as benefits and addresses security concerns. The page flows between images, and only the bottom of the page relaxes the stringent vaporwave aesthetic to boxed in graphics.

Greenlight targets parents

Greenlight Homepage

Greenlight, a fintech operating within the banking space by promoting cards for kids and teens, also uses a long scroll page with eye catching claims and product positioning statements throughout. The firm leans into a more cartoon like aesthetic, with soft rounded edges and calming colors—unlike Cash App, most pages feature real life photographs positioning the consumer first in banking. As the firm operates within a niche market, throughout the debit card page Greenlight offers such statements as “We’ve got your back” and “the debit card that has their back. And yours.”

Bank of America and the traditional look

Bank of America Debit Card Page

The Bank of America Debit Card public page is not targeting any niche audience, like the Cash App or the Greenlight pages. Instead, the firm focuses on reaching as broad of an audience as possible, presenting the simple statement “want to simplify your life with a Bank of America debit card?” The page is Bank of America branded with easy-to-understand descriptions of the product. Beyond the main statement at the top of the page urging the prospect to explore Advantage Banking in order to simplify their banking experience, the firm does not provide any additional value proposition statements on the site. Instead, the firm promotes the product as a clear choice for any prospect due to their longstanding history as a bank.

Traditional banks historically have not needed to turn to unique marketing as seen from the fintechs explored here—however, they have built the trust of their customers through consistency and a broad range of products that garner desired results through time. Their customers consider them reliable, and place the largest amount of trust in them, compared to fintechs. Fintechs, despite their catchy unique branding lack this trust major banks have built over time, and their customer base remains limited with an appeal to a younger audience. Just a year ago, however, Block CEO Jack Dorsey revealed Cash App is working to try to attract an older audience with a higher net-worth, a seeming departure from the aesthetics and unique space Cash App occupies today. While traditional banks market widely toward every consumer, whereas Cash App and other fintechs provide a respite with more streamlined single use features, these fintechs are looking to occupy the larger banking sphere. In order to appeal to a wider audience and bring in all types of consumers, fintechs such as Cash App may end up dropping their unique vaporwave aesthetics, and embrace tradition.

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Lucia Simova

Lucia Simova is an Analyst on CI's Projects team.