Launched as a ‘laboratory’ branch, ABSA’s new
store treads novel territory in terms of visual impact, use of
technology and customers interaction. Mark Howman and Glynn Huaraka
of allen international talk to Meghna Mukerjee
about how the branch is designed to be unlike any other in South


The South African retail banking market is not
new terrain for design consultancy allen international. Having
previously worked with Standard Bank and Capitec, ABSA is the
latest addition to allen international’s client list as the design
consultancy firm has worked on ABSA’s new branch dubbed ‘Branch of
Tomorrow, Today’.

According to Mark Howman, creative director at
allen international, ABSA aims to position itself as the “market
leader” with the new branch and showcase the “best that ABSA has to

ABSA’s focus with the new branch is on
providing customers with new ways of banking. Located in a mall
just outside Johannesburg, the new branch is also important in
terms of traffic as it brings in a “good mix of customers”,
according to Howman.

“ABSA has been doing a lot of work internally
around transforming how they represent themselves to customers as
well as what they want the branch channel to offer, and worked
extensively on segmentation.

“ABSA was keen to test a new branch concept
through with a lot of different segments at the same time. In the
South African banking market, as soon as you leave the big cities
the segments fall off – you either have a lot of very wealthy
farmers or a lot of farm labourers and nothing in between. The new
branch gives ABSA a nice spread of customers across segments. ABSA
can also target particular types of customers with specific
offerings,” says Howman.

The new ABSA branch offers customers with
several self service portals. Technology is a key element and the
branch’s visual presentation, alongside the use of digital media
in-store, is equally important. As allen international set out to
design the branch, it was conceptualised as a test pad that would
“mean different things to different customers”. 

“ABSA wanted to make a visual statement as a
bank. The segmentation work ABSA has been doing in their
distribution network – for the under banked and middle segments all
the way up to the private banking section – is very comprehensive.
This branch is perfect for ABSA to bring more customers in to their
retail network,” says Howman.

Having worked with other retail lenders in
South Africa, including ABSA’s direct competitor Standard Bank that
is also part of the ‘Big Four’, allen international has built up a
“good network” of contacts in the region that played a “big role”
in ABSA choosing the firm to design its new branch. Beyond the
market familiarity, however, it is allen international’s “overall
international experience” that finally worked in the firm’s favour,
according to Glynn Huaraka, design director on the ‘Branch of
Tomorrow, Today’ project.

“We work in very difficult markets, South
Africa being one of them. We have also done some work recently in
Columbia, which is another market with similarities with South

“The new ABSA branch has no revolving doors,
no windows – you just walk straight in to this massive open space.
The people in charge of security at ABSA were not very convinced
with the idea initially but we were able to say to them we have
solved similar kinds of problems in Columbia and Brazil where we
designed concept branches in ways that met with the security
criteria. We were able to come to ABSA with absolution.

“At the same time, the new branch does not
look like any other bank branch in South Africa. That is a massive
point of difference,” says Huaraka.

In comparison to other banks in South Africa
and the work they have done on segmentation, ABSA’s take is unique
due to its distribution strategy, says Howman. 

“For instance, what Capitec has done is
different in terms of microfinance and offering loans for the under
banked segment. But what ABSA has done – and what Standard Bank did
not do a few years ago – is very comprehensive work around their
distribution network. ABSA then decided to employ us as consultants
at the right time,” says Huaraka. 

One of the key things allen international aims
to do with the new branch is “bring to life how important ABSA is”
in people’s lives in South Africa.

“Almost every family in South Africa is
touched by ABSA in one shape or form. Also, as a South African
brand, ABSA has one of the highest name recognitions,” says

The focus for allen international is also to
highlight the work ABSA does involving the community.

“Beyond working for the unbanked and their
support for sport, which is massive in South Africa, ABSA
contributes a lot to the world of art. ABSA is the largest
collector of modern art in the southern hemisphere. We wanted to
make this work tangible for the customers,” adds Huaraka.

The new branch has been provided with a large
digital wall that is used for branding as well as product messaging
purposes, to showcase ABSA’s involvement in the community. There is
also a way for customers to contribute to this process. 

“ABSA can drive an interactive voting system
to contribute a portion of it’s spend for local charities that
customers vote for. Customers can use digital media in the branch
to build up a story around their favourite community activity and
display ABSA’s work in the sponsorship,”Huaraka informs.

Going forward, allen international plans to
create an area in the new branch where ABSA’s customers and clients
can come together and benefit from each other.

“ABSA has great reach and a range of contacts.
We want ABSA to be almost like a physical Groupon and use their
business connections as well as customer base and create value for
every party,” says Howman.

The new ABSA branch is also going to
continually evolve, informs Huaraka.

“Customer reactions will be gathered for the
next few months – Christmas in South Africa is particularly an
important period not just for banking but for commerce in general –
and ABSA will evaluate what further changes need to be made to the