In 2010, Blackberry founder Mike Lazaridis coined the term super-app: a closed ecosystem of apps offering a seamless, integrated, efficient and contextualized experience that people use on a daily basis. Fast-forward 12 years, and super-apps have gone from concept to reality, taking the financial services world by storm, especially in South and East Asia.
At the time of writing, though, the super-app trend is yet to take off in the same way in the West, with the super-app phenomenon largely being hampered by regulations and adverse customer behaviors, among other things.
However, that could be set to change. Western companies – such as Revolut and PayPal – are making significant progress, which could be a sign of more things to come. Given the opportunities that super-apps present – especially around data and customer journey – financial incumbents would be wise to double down on them. Otherwise, they could risk disintermediation from competitors.
What is a super-app?
A single portal offering a full spectrum of services – paying phone bills, booking taxis, ordering food – super-apps use an integrated platform to carry out multiple tasks. Designed to serve a range of everyday needs, a super-app unifies many functions in a convenient user experience via an ecosystem of third-party apps.
Fully integrated under one umbrella, super-apps use vast swathes of data to engage with users and offer customized products. Common financial services features include payments (cashless, QR and mobile), insurance, credit and loans. From a retail perspective, super-apps offer tickets, transport, hotel bookings and grocery orders. Additional functions range from news, media and music content to job searching and property rental.
Super-apps are already dominant in Asia-Pacific, with many starting life as a single app before expanding their remit. Popular examples include:
Hailing from China and developed by Tencent, this first generation super-app was released in 2011, morphing from a social app into a super-app, with functions spanning messaging, networking, shopping and payments.
Launched as a digital wallet in China, Alipay now offers travel services, mobile phone top-ups, digital discount coupons and payments.
This Indonesian super-app was formed when Gojek and Tokopedia merged, and covers food, parcel and grocery delivery, movie ticketing and payments.
Starting out as a taxi-hailing app in Malaysia in 2012, these days Grab offers payments, business loans, food delivery and travel bookings.
Specializing in digital payments, e-commerce and financial services, Paytm was founded in 2010 in India and went public in 2021.
Other super-apps that are making ground in Asia-Pacific include Fave, Line, Shohoz, Pathao. Meanwhile, Dubai-based Careem, a subsidiary of Uber, operates in 13 countries across the Middle East and North Africa and offers services such as shopping, deliveries, payments and sending credit.
The journey from app to super-app takes several steps. A scalable application with one main purpose is the starting point. From there, the app integrates financial functionality to offer services such as payments. Next, partnerships are forged with third-party app providers to broaden scope. The final phase involves leveraging customer data and loyalty to grow monthly average users (MAU) and expand services further.
Open banking & super-apps
Thanks to the ubiquity of open banking and application program interfaces (APIs), super-apps can now leverage customers’ financial data from multiple sources and offer users products that are tailored to their needs. For example, Kakao – South Korea’s successful super-app – includes an e-wallet and a digital bank alongside other services such as music streaming, video games and ride-hailing.
Not only are super-apps using open banking’s power to provide hyper-personalized experiences, they’re also using it to consolidate people’s financial interactions under one platform. If users can make payments, monitor transactions and check balances from a super-app’s e-wallet, that reduces the need to access their bank’s app.
Super-apps can also use open banking data coupled with technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to make data-driven decisions and develop customer-focused products across the ecosystem.
And as we move toward open finance – the next step in the open banking journey – super-apps will have access to a wider array of partners. That means more products at faster speed to market, increasing appeal and users.
Super-apps in Asia
By offering a one-stop shop for financial services, super-apps are highly convenient and exploding across Asia. They save space on smartphones, eliminate the need to switch between apps and require fewer downloads and updates.
Super-apps came on the scene in Asia at an optimal time in terms of the economic environment. Taking off in China just over a decade ago, a growing middle class, a huge unbanked population and high mobile phone penetration created the perfect conditions for super-apps to gain traction. What’s more, with Signal, Twitter, Facebook, Google and WhatsApp banned in China, a huge chunk of the competition was removed.
Government backing for the technology in Asia has also positively influenced the uptake of super-apps, and they’ve grown broadly unencumbered by regulation. However, with recent regulatory intervention in China resulting in Alipay’s lending services being split off into a separate app, the situation is evolving.
In recent years, Southeast Asia is mirroring China’s economic climate, with a corresponding spike in the popularity of super-apps, while progress is also being seen in Latin America, India, Africa and other parts of Asia. For example, the number of monthly active users of Kaspi.kz, the Kazakh e-commerce and fintech super-app, increased from less than six million per month in the fourth quarter of 2019 up to 9.1 million a year later.
And as of December 2021, “some eleven million people use Kaspi.kz and six million customers visit the app daily,” said co-founder and CEO Mikhail Lomtadze. With more than 80,000 partners, the super-app offers 5,000 services and users can buy more than 1.2 million products on its marketplace.
Similarly, Russia is also seeing growth in the market. Super-apps generated $51 billion in revenue in 2020, with market size expected to grow by nearly 163 percent by 2025 and hit $134 billion in revenue. While over in China, WeChat is the most popular mobile app with around 951 million MAU, and coming in second is Alipay with 599.95 million.
Super-apps in Asia-Pacific are using the vast amounts of data they collect to deliver better services – not only do they have access to the data, they know what to do with it. Furthermore, with an increasing number offering banking services, some are developing their own financial arm and building brand reputations, as opposed to partnering with traditional banks. For example, WeChat leverages WeBank for banking products.
What about super-apps in the West?
Super-apps have taken Asian markets by storm, and although the model has spread to the West – with examples such as Revolut and PayPal’s Venmo – it’s yet to have the same impact. Greater market regulation may have slowed progress, and historical reasons come into play, too.
Hugh Fletcher – Global Head of Innovation at digital marketing consultancy Wunderman Thompson Commerce – believes the “maturity of western economies” acts as a barrier to super-apps.
Consumers in the West have long-standing relationships with banks, meaning they’re less likely to switch to a super-app. Compounding that is a lack of trust in virtual providers. Indeed, a YouGov survey in early 2020 revealed a significant minority – 23 percent – were uncomfortable using online banking services, with fewer than one in ten going digital-only.
However, with the acceleration of digital transformation since COVID, alongside changing customer preferences, concerns regarding the security of managing finances online have diminished – more than seven in ten UK consumers believe it’s safe to do so. On top of that, according to research by KPMG, people are starting to revert towards rebundling services in their lives.
“Instead of having multiple apps for ordering food, ride-sharing and payment options, they want just one. Consumers may not be specifically demanding super-apps, but they certainly want the convenience and simplicity that super-apps can offer.” (KPMG)
Banks in the West: evaluating options
With the tide potentially turning in favor of super-apps, there are both opportunities and risks for banks, with three main paths to consider. They could accept the rise of the super-apps and try to stay competitive by improving and promoting their own app and product suite. That route limits growth potential: although some loyal customers will remain, banks’ share of transactions will likely shrink as people find more of their financial needs accommodated elsewhere.
The second choice is for banks to extend their reach by offering unbranded Banking-as-a-Service to existing super-apps and becoming part of the ecosystem that way. Here, banks are still involved, but it’s a background position, and the customer is a step removed from the bank. This represents a revenue-generating opportunity, but given the number of super-apps in the market is limited, banks must act quickly to secure a partner.
If they want to play a more leading role instead, banks could compete by developing their own super-app spanning both financial and non-financial services, or by creating a banking and financing super-app. This option requires a forward-thinking bank that’s willing to adopt a new business model and enter unchartered territory.
The key is localizing the super-app to the market in question alongside embracing open data and APIs. It’s also about investing in technologies like analytics, algorithms and machine learning to unlock the data’s value and offer intuitive user experiences. By doing that, organizations “own the interface with the consumer,” says Hugh Fletcher. “If you own the interface, you own the customer. If you own the customer, you own the data. And, if you own the data, you can define the future.”
Applied effectively across the super-app’s service areas, banks grasp a more complete view of their customers and can build bespoke offerings to suit their needs and improve CX. These additional insights can improve support processes such as digital onboarding by offering real-time Know Your Customer (KYC). Often fragmented, labor-intensive and with too many touchpoints, consumers have become frustrated by traditional onboarding and often abandon the process partway through.
According to Finextra, “data is the oil that greases the KYC machine”. By using it to create a 360-degree view, it’s possible to provide seamless KYC where customers are happy and risk is minimized.
Open banking, APIs and optimized use of data also enable self-service for customers via AI-powered features like unified authentication and biometric facial recognition. These facilitate an omnichannel customer experience whereby people pick up where they left off on one channel and continue the experience on another.
If banks are to take the lead, as well as leveraging open banking and data analytics, there are additional considerations, including:
- Inclusion. Super-apps offer a whole host of services; they need to work for an array of personas and demographics.
- Social responsibility. People are more eco-aware and are interested in how their apps work and whether they adhere to sustainability best practices.
- Data privacy. Consumers are increasingly sensitive to privacy infringement (particularly in the West), so robust security and safe data collection are key.
Whichever avenue banks choose – becoming a super-app, collaborating with an existing one or remaining independent – they need a clear strategy.
Decision time for Western banks
A unified platform for multiple tasks, super-apps are convenient and easy to use. Because they traverse different industries, super-apps have large and exclusive access to user data. And as open banking takes more of a hold, there’s an opportunity for banks to throw themselves into the super-app ring.
Super-apps are already a part of the conversation for banks: according to research by Accenture, mention of super-apps in annual reports rose more than six-fold between 2019 and 2021. And, as we’ve already seen, they’ve certainly taken off in parts of Asia.
For Western banks, considering exactly how to incorporate super-apps into their short, medium and long-term strategies is key. Especially what type of role they choose to play, whether it’s front office player, back-office enabler or a piece of regulated infrastructure.
Answers to all these questions will determine where banks invest and how the super-app landscape evolves.