Monday, 18 August 2014

Payment wristbands have to be cool to succeed

bPay and others are more likely to win customers by playing up style as much as function

My first thought on reading that Barclaycard is launching a payment wristband was that the chances of people actually wanting them were quite remote.

Barclays’ credit card is pushing its bPay as a convenient method for small payments from a prepaid account that can be topped up by any Visa or MasterCard. It involves waving the wristband over any terminal with a contactless payment symbol to buy anything worth up to £20.

Yes, it’s convenient, but so are the contactless cards which are becoming more common in the UK, and you can use the same near field communication technology in smartphones and smart watches. I suspect that a purpose made payment wristband won’t win any popularity contests against any of these options.

Compared with the card it might be easier to use but it’s also more visible. A lot of people won’t like to be readily identified as a customer of a particular company, especially one of the big banks, and feel more comfortable with the anonymity offered by a card tucked into a wallet or purse. It’s also going to be less tempting to thieves.

Against the phone and watch it doesn’t provide the bundle of functions that attract users, and it won’t stir any excitement in the way that the gadget fans get a kick out of the latest device with the right brand name. Payment wristbands just won’t be cool.

Then came my second thought, spinning off the fact that a lot of buyers regard phones and wearable devices as fashion accessories. The design and the brand name are often as prominent in their minds as the functions of a device, and if someone can tap into that attitude with payment wristbands they might be able to carve out a share of the market.

I can see bPay or other providers of payment wristbands doing something to make them desirable for reasons that have nothing to do with their function. They can hook up with designers of jewellery and fashion accessories, get their marketing teams focused on younger consumers, and their ad agencies creating the type of campaigns that are as much about what the wristbands can do for the user’s image as an utility factor.

It’s all about branding and making the product stand for something other than what it actually does. You might say that an intelligent consumer doesn’t buy into that stuff, but there are plenty of markets in which it works, which says something about how many unintelligent consumers are out there.

Will bPay or other providers pull it off if they take this course? Maybe, maybe not, but younger consumers often go for a product on style rather than substance. It would give the providers a chance, and I don’t see the wristbands taking it off purely on what they can actually do.

Mark Say is a UK based writer who covers the role of information management and technology in business. See

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