Where are those hidden tribes?

The ability to modify existing products, use partnerships & align capabilities with values will enable digital banking to uncover hidden tribes.

Photo by Random Institute on Unsplash

In a previous issue, I wrote about hidden tribes – a term that I borrowed from Rick Wilson that describes new ways of viewing people in a political party. I suggested strongly that digital banking solutions and bankers must adopt this framework for identifying new customers and products/services.

The goal of the Hidden Tribes project was to find ways to bring people in a polarized, tribal environment together. I believe this also applies to the way bankers – and their digital banking solutions – have approached customers, prospective and existing. As I explained in that edition of the newsletter, the hidden tribes framework offers a new way to view and identify customers, opportunities and services. And, to bring them together through digital banking solutions.

An example from the Hidden Tribes report is useful. Among liberals, the project identified at least two hidden tribes:

Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.

Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.

These hidden tribe definitions useful to understanding how and where to find them. When you think about the label “political liberal” you probably have several ideas, stereotypes or beliefs about the people who fit that label. Those ideas or believes probably vary by your context, where you live. People in the UK probably view “political liberal” differently than those in the US. For our purposes of identifying hidden tribes, the politics don’t matter. What matters is that the project identified at least these two groups hidden under that umbrella of “liberal” who are very different from each other. Under the general term of “political liberal” these groups are hidden. More importantly, they are not served by the groups trying to reach them.

The reason that these two tribes (as well as all the other identified tribes) are so different from each other is because the people who comprise these tribes have different opinions about a variety of issues. Identifying hidden tribes and then analyzing data by tribes instead of relying on a broad general descriptors such as “Latino’ or “Black” or “white” or “urban” or “rural” will yield much more value in terms of creating products and services. If the capabilities of your solution assume that <any ethnic group> are unbanked, wealthy, or anything else, you will miss these opportunities.

The job for a digital banking solution is to help banks find out what specifically motivates customers - whether they are consumers or businesses - to make the choices they do in spending time, money and other resources.

Here are 3 ways digital banking vendors (and banks) can go about identifying and pursuing hidden tribes:

  • Modify existing products

  • Create partnerships

  • Support values

Modify existing products

Finding hidden tribes in banking is not new. Nor does finding hidden tribes require a brand new product. During the 2008 financial crisis, Smartypig uncovered people who wanted to save for specific events, items. Sure, it was easy enough to say that “holiday accounts” already allowed this, but Smartypig identified a need: a digital way to save for multiple goals at the same time, both long and short term, without opening a new bank account for each one. Of course, Smartypig wasn’t and isn’t a bank. SmartyPig didn’t invent a new account. No, Smartypig used the savings account in a new way. It used its underlying bank relationship (now SallieMae Bank) to provide accounts, transaction processing, funds transfers to make it work. Did it take over the consumer banking market for savings accounts? No. Was it supposed to do that? No. (to be fair, the founders may have had these goals). It appeals to those people who want to use digital tools to save for specific goals. While in 2008 it may have been targeted to young “digital native,” it’s not a Gen X or Millenial tool.

Create Partnerships

For the most part, it’s up to the customer to find the bank, community bank or credit union and figure out if that institution has services that meet their needs. And, for many consumer and business needs, that’s a commodity product that most if not all financial institutions can provide.

If a financial institution wants to step out of the commodity services box, how would they find their hidden tribes of customers?


Partnerships can identify hidden tribes and drive new relationships and new products and services.

An example is Clean Energy Credit Union. This new credit union provides loans for clean energy-related projects – whether it’s a consumer who wants to buy a hybrid car or a business that wants to put solar panels on an office building.

The credit union’s own mission drives its clean energy lending approach & partnerships:

Mitigate climate change;

Reduce pollution and improve public health;

Create jobs and build community wealth;

Promote democratic organizations;

Improve national security and increase energy independence;

Promote personal financial independence.

The credit union has several levels of partnerships.

To become a member of Clean Energy Credit Union, one must have membership in clean energy related organizations. Through these organizations, the credit union can identify those people who have significant interest in clean energy and likely motivated to take real steps – such as installing geothermal heating in their home. This tribe crosses traditional demographic segmentations.

The credit union partners also with the American Solar Energy Society for financial support:

American Solar Energy Society (ASES), which is our 501(c)(3) “fiscal sponsor.” This means that our credit union is a project that ASES supports and which is aligned with its charitable purpose as a 501(c)(3). So, any donation to ASES can be designated to support Clean Energy Credit Union project and 98-99% of your donation will be transferred within the same month. 

Additionally, Clean Energy seeks partnerships with other businesses that have similar missions around clean energy and would meet the needs of their members:

Auto dealers that sell electric cars and electric motorcycles (both new and used);

Companies that perform residential energy efficiency improvements (e.g. weatherization and insulation) and that sell energy-saving or energy-efficient equipment (e.g. heat pumps, furnaces, evaporative coolers, triple-pane windows, etc.)

Solar electric contractors;

Geothermal heat pump contractors.

Solar hot water contractors;

Bicycle shops that offer electric-assist bicycles;

While members that get loans for clean energy projects don’t have to buy products from partners, the credit union offers special loans through those partners - because these partners actually enable the credit union to achieve its own clean energy goals.

By the way, did I mention that it is a digital only credit union?

Yes, this is a small example. Yes, Clean Energy Credit Union is a very new (2018) and small credit union. As of December 31 2019, the credit union reported just 1,196 members and 1,423 originated loans. But the credit union also reported more than 100,000 cumulative tons of CO2 offset - a clear tie to their mission. This tie is important not only to the board but also to prospective members and partners. This values alignment is another way to identify hidden tribes.

Create capabilities that support values

Another way to identify hidden tribes is to identify values that your company (or bank) supports through mission or business goals. Yes, it has to be something other than “profitability.” Your company may not have one. That’s okay. This method of identifying hidden tribes is not for every vendor or even every bank. Nor is it going to be for every customer, whether consumer or business.

Sustainability is a value that CoGo, a New Zealand startup, uses to create new serivces. CoGo enables consumers to align with their values with their spending. This service actually identifies two hidden tribes: consumers who want to align their lives with their sustainability values and businesses who practice sustainability. While on the face, it seems like a personal financial management (PFM) tool, CoGo helps customers who are so motivated to change their behaviors related to sustainability. They can use their payments data to calculate their carbon footprint and to identify whether shops. Consumers can also track spending to figure out whether they are doing with business with companies that pay a living wage.

Data, of course, is essential to identify and support these capabilities. CoGo uses all kinds of data related to carbon footprint, living wages and more – mostly unfamiliar to bankers and financial services vendors.  Interestingly, Westpac NZ which has sustainability strategy, has approached hidden tribes by partnering with CoGo

Some cautions:

  • Creating capabilities that support specific values means that your organization will be more transparent. If you create digital banking capabilities to support living wage services, then your company must expect that your customers – and their competitors – will look for concrete examples that you actually do pay your employees a living wage. See my previous example of Clean Energy Credit Union’s annual report inclusion of their CO2 offset. Sounds harsh? Yes. But I want you to be prepared. This is not a marketing exercise.

  • Remember, that values or missions are not absolutes. A value can uncover a hidden tribe in one place, that is a commodity in another. In some countries, such as New Zealand, a value such as “sustainability” does not necessarily identify a hidden tribe – while in the US and other countries, it might.

Caution: Ethnic groups are not hidden tribes

Given recently documented examples of Black Americans’ experiences of racism when interacting with banks and bank general failures to provide Black Americans – or other groups, especially people of color - with financial services, banks – and fintechs – may see an opportunity to discover this “hidden tribe.”

I urge you not to identify any race or ethnic-specific hidden tribes. Why?

1.      Hidden tribes can’t and won’t undo decades and decades of racism and degrading and humiliating service that Black Americans have and continue to experience in trying to obtain financial services.

2.      Remember: A real hidden tribe should not conform to stereotypes or generalities. Resist the urge to generalize or rely on stereotypes or anything you “know.” Dig into data to find answers to the questions: What are the common characteristics across customers? What brings them together as a hidden tribe?

3.      The exception to this is, of course, those financial institutions that were created by and for a particular group – like One United Bank. In the US, at least, there is a history of ethnic groups creating their own financial institutions.

4.      And even these banks need to identify hidden tribes.

5.      Any capability product or service geared toward Black Americans or a specific ethnic group may (probably) violates local and national regulations and laws. But you knew that, right?

Final takeaways

  • Hidden tribes are not just for large banks, so no excuses for the digital banking vendors who target mid-tier and smaller banks, community banks, or credit unions.

  • Alignment of values and capabilities may not be for your company or bank. Better to be honest about this internally before failing publicly.

  • Data is intrinsic to identifying hidden tribes. If your organization is not onboard with using or doesn’t have the technical ability to access new sources of external data, take a step back. If you go forward without new data, new data analyses, you will probably get the same old answers. If you are a digital banking vendor that doesn’t have the technical ability to access new sources of external data, you have to address these challenges before creating hidden tribe capabilities.

  • Digital banking solution vendors: leverage your solution’s open banking and platform architecture designed to add the ability for banks to identify hidden tribes, including the ability to modify existing products, to use partnerships and the ability to define values and create services that align with them.

  • Challenger banks, new spin-off digital only banks, or new banks with loads of brick-and-mortar branches, consider evaluating digital banking solutions in terms of their abilities to uncover hidden tribes and support related capabilities.

What do you think? Got comments?

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Who publishes this newsletter?

I’m a former Gartner analyst. I’ve worked in and covered the banking industry for 27 years. I still think & write about digital banking — but also indulge my other interests, women in tech, startups - especially those in the US Midwest & South Eastern Europe), leadership & change, and AgTech.

I write this newsletter for people who are trying to differentiate their banking software in an increasingly competitive market. That could be people who work at software companies currently developing banking software or people at vendors that want to move vertically into the banking market.  I think this focus will interest bankers and investors as well.

I publish weekly. Some ideas and thoughts may not be fully fleshed out. I may reject earlier ideas in future issues. I may expand one idea into a longer piece here or elsewhere. For now, this newsletter is free. 

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