Brand Experience Brief: Capital One 360 Cafe

Today’s Brand Experience Brief is about what happens when you cross a bank with a cafe.  It’s about Capital One 360 Cafes, which are “unique community spaces where you can learn new ways to save time and money while you tap free WiFi and enjoy a great cup of coffee,”  Check out this video audit and analysis — and if you have a suggestion for a Brand Experience Brief about a new or interesting restaurant or retail concept, let me know.  I’ll be in San Francisco, D.C., New York, and Dallas soon and would love to check out your recommendations.

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Today’s brand experience brief is about what happens when you cross a bank with a cafe.  Capital One is doing just that in several locations around the U.S.

You may know Capital One as the primarily online and mobile bank that emerged from ING Direct a few years ago.  While the brand prides itself on its direct business model, it decided it needed some personal interaction in order to really connect with customers.  So it started Capital One 360 Cafés, reinventing the bank branch experience given that traditional branch offices are losing their relevance.  The first Café opened in New York City back in 2001 but the company is doing more concerted development of the concept these days with at least 6 locations planned for the Boston area alone. I stopped into the city’s first location on Bolyston Street and was impressed in several ways.

First, the unit features a full-fledged Peet’s Coffee in it and includes the wonderful smell, sound, and ambiance of a regular Peet’s.  It’s a large space, around 5,000 square feet, so it doesn’t have an intimate of a feel as most coffee shops but it has the usual furnishings.

Lots of tables to work at and chairs to lounge in, free wi-fi, and quiet spaces set off the main room for privacy.  The high ceilings, big windows, and open space give it a very comfortable feel and the design elements are contemporary. In an effort to make the place a community center, it offers meeting rooms for free to non-profit groups.

Messaging on digital screens and bright posters communicate the vision for the café, saying “let’s bank the way we live.” And the outdoor signage also uses bright colors to make the location stand out.

There’s a counter in the back of the store staffed by friendly Capital One employees who are there to answer questions like a regular banker would, but without all the suits, ear pieces, and security cameras that give most banks a formal air.  You can’t make deposits and withdrawals, apply for loans, or use safe-deposit boxes here.  If you want to do any real banking, there’s an ATM near the entrance — but it seems almost an afterthought which brings me to my main conclusion.

This is a café, not a bank branch.  The company says the units are designed for face-to-face interaction and intended as retail destinations, but for most people, there’s very little reason to interact with the banking staff and there’s no real draw to the location other than café. And in fact, it may frustrate people that these locations are intended only to introduce consumers to online banking, not to provide standard banking functionality.

In a world without ROI and high real estate costs, the Capital One 360 Café concept would be a cool addition to the retail landscape.  But I expect Capital One will find it hard to justify them without any real banking transaction value.

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