clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why banking apps and startups suddenly all have human first names

Dave, Marcus, Brigit — these financial products want to be on a first name basis with you.

a young woman looks at her phone in a mall
A bunch of new financial products have humanoid names.
Getty Images
Meredith Haggerty is the senior editor for the Culture section at Vox. Before coming to Vox, she was a senior editor at Racked.

When you need some money to make it to your next paycheck, you can always call on Dave. If you need budgeting help, reach out to Brigit. And for a personal loan to get you out of credit card debt, try Marcus.

That’s not to presume the names and financial situations of the people in your life: Dave, Brigit, and Marcus are all money-related apps and services that have human first names. Personable products aimed at your wallet are a definite mini-trend. There’s also Frank (student loans), Alice (automated pre-tax spending), Clyde (insurance), Oscar (also insurance), and Albert (savings, investment, and overdraft protection).

Anthony Shore, the founder of brand-naming firm Operative Words, explains that these financial startups are simply trying to sound more accessible. “‘Let’s make ourselves chummy and folksy,’” Shore says, channeling a financial startup.

Laurel Sutton, a senior strategist and linguist at the naming agency Catchword, agrees. “They’re trying to take [the brand] away from a faceless institution,” Sutton told Vox. “That kind of branding seems very much on point for millennials or post-millennials.”

And appealing to millennials and Gen Z matters, because when it comes to those demographics, the financial services industry has a problem. As Chavie Lieber wrote for The Goods, “researchers at Deloitte have concluded that young professionals today have a “general distrust in financial institutions.’”

In the decade since the Great Recession, a very valuable demographic has not had the faith (or the capital) to get seriously involved in financial transactions that their parents and grandparents may have sought out — they have financial needs, but are suspicious of the places that have traditionally provided solutions. These startups want to change that by seeming familiar, friendly, and a lot more like you and me.

Financial firms of the past had human names, but not the same way they do now

Financial entities that sound casual are not entirely new; they have some pretty big forbearers. Specifically: government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Those names are derived from the institutions’ long acronyms: Fannie Mae is the Federal National Mortgage Association (FNMA) and Freddie Mac is the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (FHLMC — a stretch to be honest). Both are private companies that were launched by Congress as a part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal; both help people buy homes, both were bailed out in 2008 and are now intrinsically linked to the Great Recession.

As Laurel Sutton explains, the Fannie and Freddie monikers were “a very deliberate attempt to personalize something that was seen as basically like taxes.”

Folksy-sounding government entities aside, most financial institutions of yore (defined here as 2007 and before) were all about the last name, the family name, with an occasional full name thrown in for good measure: Bear Stearns was not named for a particularly humorless grizzly, but for Joseph Ainslie Bear and Robert B. Stearns. Morgan Stanley is not one person’s name but two: Henry S. Morgan and Harold Stanley, the former of whom was the grandson of the J.P. Morgan of J.P. Morgan Chase fame. (And both Morgan men are distantly related by marriage to Sonia Morgan, of Real Housewives of New York fame, just FYI). Charles Schwab was a guy, yes, but the firm was never called plain old “Charles.”

Sutton says that the initial reasoning behind using family names for financial institutions was much the same reason law firms use last names: “You want to know who your lawyer is, right?” The personal brand was valuable. But after the 1929 crash, banks held onto these names long past their founders’ departures.

“Giving it some grand name that made it sound like it’s been around for 500 years would make people feel more confident that they could put their money there,” Sutton says, and financial firms needed to sound “really big and strong and institutional.” Family names — especially familiar ones with cache — convey stability.

But after the financial crisis, the names we knew lost their luster. According to professors from Northwestern and the University of Chicago, “Americans’ trust in financial institutions [was] 28 percent in 2018.” (Although this was at least up from 22 percent in 2008, so congrats, bankers.)

With younger folks, the distrust is perhaps even more active: As CNBC reports, in 2017, “45.3 percent of respondents to WEF’s Global Shapers Survey” — a poll of 25,000 people ages 18-35 — “said they ‘disagree’ with the statement that they trust banks to be fair and honest.”

As the brand-naming agency founder Shore explains, “millennials and others, we’ve all lived through these incredible breaches of trust from these large institutions: security breaches, identity breaches, financial malfeasance.” It’s something the creators of new financial products need to keep top of mind, and many say they do.

Finance-related startups are trying to build trust with modern consumers

Dave (short for David, as in “and Goliath”) is a banking startup that, among other things, tries to help users keep their bank accounts from dipping too low and incurring fees. CEO Jason Wilk acknowledges young people’s wariness of financial institutions: “Millennials and Gen Z were shaped by the financial crisis, which led a lot of people to lose their trust in banks.”

Wilk says that he experienced the frustration of a bank that didn’t treat him like a human being, and wanted to build a tool to help with budgeting and building credit, as well as covering immediate expenses. And sounding like, well, a guy helps his company do that. “Having a name like Dave tells our users that we are here for them and that we want to make finance approachable and friendly.”

“When we were looking at naming the company, one of the most important things for us was having something to be human,” Charlie Javice, founder of Frank, tells me. She says Frank is a service that helps students “get the most money for college” by helping applicants complete their Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. (As the name implies, the FAFSA is free, as is Frank’s marquee service; the company makes money by offering premium services, including aid appeals.)

Humanity is key, but so is familiarity. Javice fielded suggestions to name her company after herself, but she was resistant: “I’m like, if all else fails, my name can’t fail too.” (Plus, she says, there was the little matter of the financial giant Charles Schwab.) The team set about asking students who they turn to for financial advice when it came to paying for college, and Javice reports, “many people were naming like some, you know, weird uncle or cousin.” Frank, with its double meaning of honesty, was a name that seemed to fit the profile.

Dave’s hey-it’s-that-guy origins echo Frank’s: “Everyone has an uncle or friend named Dave,” Wilk says.

Even Marcus — full name: “Marcus by Goldman Sachs” — has a similar story, with Dustin Cohn, head of brand marketing for the consumer and investment management division of Goldman Sachs, telling me, “Everybody knows a Marcus and Marcus was always a good guy, very sort of positive associations with the name Marcus.” (Marcus is the rare first-named modern financial product that refers to a real person; the name comes from the firm’s founder, Marcus Goldman).

For Marcus, familiarity didn’t stop with a nice dude you might know. Offering personal loans, savings accounts, and the financial tracking app Clarity Money (soon to be rebranded under the Marcus name), it’s the investment bank’s first consumer product. This made “by Goldman Sachs” a vital element. Cohn says branding that associated Marcus too closely with Goldman could alienate customers, but the bank’s storied — and crucially, not-failed — legacy reassured them. He compares the “by” branding to Donna Karan’s DKNY.

Historically, Shore says, it was consumer products — like Wendy’s, Ben & Jerry’s, and Tom’s — that would use first names in their trademark. Friendliness was paramount because these are products you welcome into your home. This wasn’t the case with banking-related services — that is, until your bank could fit on your phone.

Shore and Sutton both posit that the new crop of first-named financial services has perhaps the most in common with chatbots like Alexa, Cortana, and Siri. Like consumer products, voice assistants are invited into your house, but the anthropomorphizing goes further: You talk to them, telling them personal information and making them privy to the entirety of your domestic life, and they talk back.

While chatbot names are even more complicated — humanoid enough to be friendly, singular enough that you’re not constantly triggering your Samsung “John” device — they’ve primed consumers to expect the products they work with intimately, the ones they trust with sensitive information, to feel like a buddy.

One thing Sutton notes about these names is the gender breakdown, the smattering of what she calls, “everyman white guy names.” Not all of these financial brand names follow this rule, but they certainly seem more masculine than the chatbot space with its A and I endings. “The patriarchy will tell you that you want a guy to help you with your money and you want a woman to do stuff for you,” Sutton says.

Ironically, as Shore notes, the desire to give make these products feel personal and human results in — like the tarnished Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — a name that actually refers to nothing and no one in particular: “These human names don’t correspond with any actual person. They’re fake. They’re fictional. They’re fake people.”

Sign up for The Goods newsletter. Twice a week, we’ll send you the best Goods stories exploring what we buy, why we buy it, and why it matters.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.