Meet the brand with more retail locations than Subway, Starbucks and McDonald’s combined

As the financial services industry faces new entrants and disruptors, Western Union is looking to the future of the payments industry by exploring how cryptocurrencies and blockchain-related technologies can improve the customer experience.

It should be hard to escape the Western Union brand. With more than half a million retail locations all over the world – more than Subway, Starbucks and McDonald’s combined – it is the largest money transfer and global payments company in the world, facilitating payments ranging from transfers between family members to servicing major NGOs.

Across its business, 32 cross-border transactions were made every second last year in 130 currencies, helping it to generate revenue of $5.5bn (£4.15bn).

Yet awareness levels for the brand are relatively poor. According to YouGov BrandIndex, only three-quarters (74.1%) of UK consumers are aware of the brand. Compare that to PayPal, which has an awareness level of 96.6% and the challenge is clear.

It also struggles with consumer perceptions. Its Index score – a combination of metrics including quality, value and reputation – is -3.7, putting it 39th out of a list of 47 finance brands.

This is an issue Nicole Zimmermann, its head of marketing and customer for global payments, is aware of. She is responsible for the 60-strong payments team that is in charge of the customer and marketing strategies for both the B2B and B2B2C strands of the business.

Zimmermann is also working hard to build Western Union’s profile and credibility as a corporate brand and make sure its message is consistent across the globe.

“I put a lot of thought into what a modern marketing organisation actually needs to look like to service the support of the business division,” Zimmermann says. “With my team, it’s thinking about the voice of the customer; really understanding the needs of the customer and insights around them is a critical starting point.”

Balancing global and regional marketing

Western Union operates in every country in the world bar two – North Korea and Iran –  a scale that brings its own unique challenges. Customer research, data analytics and understanding the evolution of digital are all managed on a global level.

However, there are also regional marketing teams responsible for customising Western Union’s global programmes to suit different countries’ needs. This includes areas such as events and some components of its PR strategy.

“When you have things that are applicable across regions, or across segments and verticals, then it is more effective and efficient if a global team is taking care of it, builds out a programme and then distributes it back to the regions so they can customise it according to their needs,” Zimmermann explains.

“On the other hand we stay very close to the regional teams so we can get the feedback on what they really need. Sometimes you find someone is doing something regional that can be of benefit for the global team and vice versa. It’s a nice symbiotic way of how global and regional are working together.”

The most challenging thing, Zimmermann says, is the time zones. And as a business that operates on a 24-hour basis for at least five days a week, Western Union rarely sleeps.

But Zimmermann actually sees time zones as a benefit – “because you can drive the execution from a follow the sun principle”. That means that as someone finishes work for the day they can hand it over to someone who’s just about to start, creating a continuous cycle of production.

As a “big believer” in data and quantitative information, Zimmermann says her customer and marketing teams are largely made up of data-savvy people who have the ability to transform information into qualitative and interesting content.

“It’s about a different breed of marketers, especially in B2B, which is about analytical understanding and translating that into what that means from a marketing and customer strategy approach,” she explains.

AI vs the human touch

With the rapid evolution of technology in the financial services sector and growth in mobile devices, alongside the rise of cryptocurrencies, blockchain and artifical intelligence, the way in which both people and businesses connect, interact and move money around the world is changing. Western Union believes it has a role to play in driving that change. 

To make transactions more efficient and convenient for clients, it is currently looking at how artificial intelligence, cryptocurrencies and blockchain-related technologies can play a role in improving the customer experience, and potentially reduce costs.

On the consumer side, Western Union uses chatbots on Facebook Messenger, while on the B2B side robots manage the “repeat easy tasks that you don’t need people to do over and over on a daily basis”.

However, Zimmermann says they are a long way from being able to rely on AI to manage business transactions.

“It’s still an area where human interaction is perceived as more valuable and preferred because there is a lot of money at stake. It’s always good to have a voice at the other end of the line that is giving you the confidence and reassurance that we are managing those payments on time and that it’s accurate what the other party is receiving.

“Will it be like that in 50 or 100 years? I don’t know. But at the moment there is still that fine line where people would accept AI for servicing their needs versus human intelligence.”

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