The Beatles are arguably one of the most successful bands of all time, but their foray into the digital music space has long been frustrated. In their first week on the iTunes store, however, the Beatles amassed a staggering 2 million individual song downloads and over 450,000 in albums sales. Not bad for a band who stopped recording music 30 years before the iPod was even invented. Their success is evidence of something else entirely, and it should terrify banks mired in physical methods of banking.
The fact that The Beatles held out on launching their ‘content’ into the digital space for so long is sadly typical of many very traditional businesses confronted with changing modality and business models. The Beatles conflict intellectually with the digital space actually commenced as a legal battle between Apple Computers and Apple Corps (The Beatles Holding Company) that started more than 30 years ago in 1978. At that time The Beatles filed a lawsuit against Apple Computers for trademark infringement. In 1981 the initial case was settled for just $80,000. Conditions of the settlement were that the two “Apples” would not infringe on each other’s businesses, i.e. Apple Computers would not enter the music business, and Apple Corps would refrain from selling computers. Thus, in 1986 when Apple allowed users to record songs to their computers, it was perceived they were in breach of that agreement. The legal jostling continued until February 2007, when a reported settlement of some $500 million was reached over the trademark dispute in favor of Apple Corps.
Confronted with the digital age most of the recording industry bristled. They saw changing modality, a shift to digital music as a threat to their entrenched distribution channels. Rather than embrace digital distribution the likes of the RIAA, when confronted with innovation in their sector, lashed out with lawsuit after lawsuit, starting with the famous case against Napster. The RIAA’s strategy was built on the sole premise of trying to prevent people from using file sharing networks so their existing distribution networks could be propped up indefinitely, and they celebrated Napster’s decline into bankruptcy as a sign of success for this strategy.
Clearly most saw the writing on the wall, but rather than change, the RIAA and the industry as a whole buried their head in the sand, hoping to limp along till change was absolutely inevitable, or worse thinking that they were immune to change. By all accounts, the RIAA was woefully unsuccessful in this strategy. Today, new artists live or die based on their ability to move product in the digital space, and The Beatles move at long last into the digital space singles that the last bastions of support for traditional, physical music distribution is crumbling. In fact, physical “record” sales peaked in 1999 at $14.65 Bn. By 2007 Physical sales of music content were already less than in 1993 having reduced to around $10 Bn, and by then end of 2010 it is expected digital music sales will finally overtake physical sales all together. Clearly the sector was in massive trouble with its decision to resist digital sales and the hundreds of millions spent by the RIAA on legal bills were largely a complete and utter waste of money. Those precious funds should have instead been put into revitalizing the industry digitally. The RIAAs actions in this light were reprehensible.
Others have faced similar battles in recent times, including Blockbuster who filled for Chapter 11 in September of this year, clearly signaling the near death of physical distribution of DVDs. Encyclopedia Britannica faced the same type of troubles when Microsoft introduced Encarta to show Windows’ multimedia capability in the mid-90s. This almost spelled the end of Britannica’s 300 year old business overnight.
What is under attack here is not DVDs, it’s not The Beatles, RIAA, Books or CDs and vinyl – what is under attack is Physical Distribution of goods that can easily be digitized. In that sense, the bank sector is in massive trouble because almost everything a bank does can be digitized.
Much of what our banking experience today means is wrapped up in the banking sector’s love of physical distribution. The centre of retail banking from an organization structure perspective in most cases remains the branch, which started life arguably as a physical distribution point for cash. Branch P&Ls exceed ‘digital’ by a factor of 50-100 times in most retail banks of today – an inequity that speaks volumes to ghastly outmoded thinking in bank boardrooms. Cash, Cheques, Plastic Cards, Branches themselves are all inevitable victims of this modality shift.
The Financial Times reported last week the following sentiment in the banking sector:
Banks across the UK, Europe and the US are now bringing service centres back into their local markets and investing heavily in their branch networks. More significantly, many are attempting to restore their battered reputations by putting customer satisfaction at the heart of their business
Financial Times, November 17, 2010
This strategy is massively flawed. While improvements in customer service should be applauded, the fact is, based on distribution metrics, take up of mobile banking, internet banking, mobile payments, and other such indicators, the investment should be going into improving customer journeys, experience and service in the digital space. Most banks need to increase their investment in the digital space ten fold in the next 3 years at a minimum.
Like The Beatles, most banks when threatened with this modality shift, will find it extremely uncomfortable. The reality is, though, if they embrace the change revenues will follow. To give you some indication of the vast gap between shifting modality and the reality of bank distribution strategy, most banks still classify Internet Banking as a ‘transactional platform’ for saving distribution costs. For most customers today, though, they are 30-50 times more likely to visit your bank by logging in to Internet or Mobile Banking than visiting a physical branch. The problem with bank strategy in this respect is, if you come to a branch a core strategy is to try to sell you a new product. Today, most banks don’t sell anything through Internet Banking. If they did, most banks would be shocked to find out that they’d be actually selling more product online than through their entire branch network today.
It’s not branches that is under threat today – it is physical distribution. Banks can take the music industry approach and stick their head in the sand until things are absolutely inevitable, or they can adapt.
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