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News Analysis 3 May 2021 - 6 min read

Bland brands, fleecing customers and why main media builds brands faster than digital: CMO at fintech Athena shakes it up

By Paul McIntyre and Sam Buckingham-Jones

Athena’s goal is to be as big as possible by helping people pay off home loans as fast as possible, Dinsdale says. “You need to punch above your weight,” she says.

Athena takes its name from the goddess of war and wisdom. The fintech upstart is waging an all out attack on both the conventional wisdom that brands must be universally liked, and the homogeneity of a mortgage sector that appears to value new customers over old. In two years since launch, CMO Natalie Dinsdale has baked performance media into everything – even brand – and she's had Josh Frydenberg plug Athena's customer-first mantra and scold the banks. She's begun building her own econometrics model and barely looks at last click figures. Both brand and CMO are looking to land more punches on the established order.

What you need to know:

  • Athena is not a neobank, but a fintech start up dedicated solely to the home loan sector, per CMO Natalie Dinsdale.
  • To the broader sector's horror, Athena's attacking banking's crown jewels – and helping people pay off their mortgage faster. 
  • Key to its strategy is passing on rate cuts immediately, gaining plaudits from Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, and by refusing to favour new customers with cheaper deals than existing customers.
  • Dinsdale thinks brands, particularly banks, are too safe and vanilla in their marketing as a result. You can't please all of the people all of the time, she says, and brands should embrace that.
  • Athena's growth strategy also bakes performance into everything – even brand – while Dinsdale is building new econometric models to hone its competitive edge and slice off an even bigger chunk of the mortgage market.

You have to be prepared for not everyone to like you. The biggest problem with brands today is not being rejected – it’s indifference. Our ambition is not for everyone to like us, we actually want people to love us or hate us, but just not to be indifferent.

Natalie Dinsdale, Athena CMO

In early 2019, as Natalie Dinsdale and the team at Athena prepared to launch, they hit on what she describes as the ‘golden nugget’ of her marketing strategy.

“Everyone was talking about home loans,” she says, “but no-one was talking about getting rid of a home loan.”

It became the cornerstone of a new challenger fintech brand taking on the home loan industry.

Dinsdale, originally from Trinidad, has worked across the industry: Citibank, Virgin, NAB – as head of brand for UBank, Foxtel, Telstra and most recently as Head of Brand and Marketing for Tyro.

Since that launch in February 2019, Athena has processed more than two billion dollars’ worth of settlements – reaching their first-year target of one billion dollars in 10 months. They now have more than 4,000 customers and are growing every week.

Many of their customers to date have been refinancers, Dinsdale says. Typically between 35 and 45 years old, they’re more savvy about the home loan process – and often frustrated with the low rates banks advertise to new customers only.

“Home loans were the laggard in fintech. Everyone’s talking about launching a neo bank. We've had 'revolutionised' debit cards and credit cards. But mortgages are one of the hardest ones to do,” Dinsdale says.

“Yet mortgages are the crown jewel of all the big banks. This is basically how banks make money. But, because they are so highly regulated, it’s also one of the hardest areas to innovate. You have to have a lot of money to be able to lend, etc.”

We tested TV at the end of last year. We just tested it in Sydney; we did a TV animation test, we spent $100,000. We had a 50 per cent uplift in unique hits to our site in Sydney versus Melbourne. We had a 25 per cent increase in applications. That was purely TV – nothing else had changed.

Natalie Dinsdale, Athena CMO

Home alone among the banks

Athena’s stated goal, to the consternation of some of its investors, is to help customers pay down their home loan faster. While major banks are always offering low rates to attract new customers, Athena found itself attracting those sick of watching new customers pay lower rates.

“Our promise is that we will never give new customers a better rate than existing customers,” she said.

“It’s an antidote to loyalty tax. The industry has conditioned them [to expect] that every couple of years you have to ring and negotiate and get cranky with your bank to get a lower rate. Which is bullshit. That is absolute bullshit.

“We want customers, and we just want to stop screwing them over, basically.”

Athena's marketing spend and strategy has been one of experimentation. Their first major breakthrough, after a big and loud launch, was an interest rate cut by the Reserve Bank (RBA). 

“The first time the RBA did it, we came out literally one minute after [and passed on] the full 25 bps. In full,” Dinsdale says. “We were inundated. The third time we did it, we had the Treasurer talk about us on TV, saying ‘banks should be more like Athena’. We’ve done it five times.”

"It's all direct marketing"

Dinsdale says she doesn’t believe brands should separate brand awareness and calls to action. “I’m a direct marketer in everything I do,” she said.

“I don't want anything going out the door without proof points, logo, call to action. Everything has to have a call to action, no matter what… our brand awareness has doubled in a year.”

The team has invested in a bespoke econometrics model that has been designed and built by UK firm Jaywing, but Dinsdale admits the system will take time to mature.

“I've been in a lot of places that have invested a lot of money where it hasn't really told them anything or worked,” Dinsdale said. “I guess I didn't even consider an off-the-shelf [product], because I wanted to pump in all our own data and I wanted to be constantly evolving to suit our needs rather than be constrained in any way.

“In terms of our understanding of the interaction between digital, radio, social, we've got a lot of really great insights into that,” she said.

“We are constantly looking at different landing pages and customer journeys. We had different landing pages depending on the copy from the campaign. At one stage it looked like our Insta page was outperforming, dropping people straight into the funnel on the website. And then a couple of months later, it all changed. So once you think you've banked one learning, it's kind of like, Covid hits, customers change, rates change.”

We're always getting things wrong. If you're not getting things wrong, you are not pushing the boundaries. You are not testing enough.

Natalie Dinsdale, Athena CMO

Mixing it up

Athena’s channel mix is around 70 per cent digital, with the biggest spend on search and affiliates – sites like Canstar, Finder and RateCity.

“They’re basically targeting people who are very low in the funnel. So we kind of have to be there, but the volume is where you can actually unhook people from the big banks. This is not just about being in the flow, this is about creating the flow,” Dinsdale said.

Meanwhile, although the firm "always looks at" last click performance, "we are quickly moving away from it."

But there have been extremely positive results from legacy media, especially from TV – and in Melbourne where Athena consistently records higher brand awareness, from radio. Dinsdale attributes that uplift to spending on radio in the city at the time of a rate drop – which at the time was a test to see how well radio would perform. 

“We're always getting things wrong,” Dinsdale said. “If you're not getting things wrong, you are not pushing the boundaries. You are not testing enough.

“We tested TV at the end of last year. We just tested it in Sydney; we did a TV animation test, we spent $100,000. We had a 50 per cent uplift in unique hits, and to our site in Sydney versus Melbourne. We had a 25 per cent increase in applications. That was purely TV – nothing else had changed.

“A lot of people have subjective opinions, ‘oh no-one’s watching TV anymore’, and that's just not true. Yes, I think over the course of the last ten years, viewership has gone down. But that doesn't mean that the vast majority still don't watch TV.

‘But again, it's also about frequency. What I want to do is [to make customers] go, ‘I've heard you, I've seen you, I've seen you on digital’… It’s never about one channel, it’s about strategy.”

Blank banks

All major banks had depressingly similar messages throughout the pandemic, per Dinsdale, who thinks they are afraid to distinguish itself.

“They all say the same thing: ‘We care for you, we’re here for you, we’ve been here ever since the 1800s’… I just thought, you have to be distinctly different.

“You have to be prepared for not everyone to like you. The biggest problem with brands today is not being rejected – it’s indifference. Our ambition is not for everyone to like us, we actually want people to love us or hate us, but just not to be indifferent.”

Athena’s goal is to be as big as possible. To achieve that, “You need to punch above your weight”.

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Paul McIntyre and Sam Buckingham-Jones

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