A Miaowing Debit Card?!

ANNA, a company managing your business finances through invoicing, tracking your expenses and sorting your company taxes, has recently introduced a miaowing debit card. I’m not kidding. ANNA auditioned over 300 cats to get to the “perfect miaow”. They even recorded a YouTube video about the process. In the video it is made explicit that the miaowing feature would exclusively be enabled for contactless transactions. According to ANNA they have gone through this entire endeavour simply because running your own business should be fun, and that a lot of finance and fintech companies are rather boring, and they refuse to be part of that lot. ANNA just wants to contribute to the fun of running your own business. I’m still not entirely sure who made the executive decision that “fun” is by definition associated with cats, but than I am a dog person.

All nonsense aside, this “gimmick” might have some unintended consequences for those who know the payment method literature. This card has just gone from a non-salient tap on the terminal to a much more salient action: it bloody miaows! For those who are unfamiliar with the payment method literature, let me give you a quick recap. It is believed that as we have progressed from cash to cheque to credit card to debit card to contactless cards to other contactless methods (mobile, watch) that these payment methods have become increasingly more convenient: safer, quicker, less physical, less limited. These conveniences have a downside as well: they have become less salient and more abstract. The action of handing cash over is the action of paying, accompanied with all the feelings of paying. The tapping of a card or device against a payment terminal without any verification is not…

That these two things are not the same has been supported by research. Those who use cash spend less, remember their expenditures better, spend less impulsively, have a stronger connection to what they have bought, have a lower willingness-to-pay and incur less debt than those who use credit cards to spend. Similar findings have also been found for the debit card (higher willingness-to-pay), contactless (increased spending, reduced recall accuracy, no longer feeling in control of one’s finances) and mobile payments (increased debt). If you want me to provide you with the references or the papers themselves for these findings, just let me know! Now there are several theories explaining these effects. There’s Zellermayer’s pain of paying, Soman’s transparency framework, Raghubir and Srivastava’s decoupling (only focusses on non-concurrent payment methods) and Gafeeva et al’s multi-functionality. And all these theories argue kind of the same thing: salience is key, and less salience leads to an increase in the effects mentioned in the previous paragraph. Cash is super salient, but anything that is quicker, less physical and more convenient is not as salient. Easy-peasy. Now contactless cards are as non-salient as you can go (there’s some debate about mobile being non-salient as the device can track your expenditures at the same time). You can make the argument that a contactless credit card is less salient than a contactless debit card, but we’re only focusing on the latter so we’re ignoring that argument in this post. What ANNA has done is they’ve added a salience to one of the most non-salient payment methods currently known to us. What might happen here? Well, as outlined previously, a lack of salience leads to increased spending, reduced expenditure recall, a higher willingness-to-pay, etc. etc. (I’m not retyping the whole lot). So increasing the salience of a payment would reduce those effects. This is similar to those who use mobile payments receiving the notification as soon as they’ve made the payment. This notification reminds them of the amount spent, but can also reiterate several previous spends as well as the remaining balance on the account (depends on your settings). This makes the payment much more salient, and also makes both mental and actual accounting (keeping track of spending) much easier.

The miaow may be similar. Attention is now driven to the act of paying itself. The oh-so-non-salient tap has become much more salient. Obviously, this increased salience will be much more noticeable at the start of using the card rather than weeks later, people do habituate to such things. But it would make for an interesting exercise to see if those who use the miaowing debit card exhibit any different (spending) behaviours for a period of time, or feel differently about their spending. Had ANNA consulted me, I would’ve been happy to draw them up a study! 😉 All jokes aside, the idea of making payments more salient is not a bad idea. Whether you think this is gimmicky or not, at least someone is trying to make a difference. I personally don’t think the ANNA team is that aware of the payment literature (sorry folks) but that doesn’t mean they haven’t stumbled across something which could work. We now just have to figure out how to make something salient for a much longer period of time – we need to cancel out the habituation effects.

Another interesting thought experiment here: ignoring habituation effects, what’s the classical conditioning perspective here? From a classical conditioning perspective (think Pavlov and his dogs) I’m just wondering whether people who have this card will now feel like they’re spending money if they just hear a random cat miaow. Or will be disappointed if they hear a cat miaow and haven’t recently purchased something which simulates feelings of immediate gratification. This can really mess with your reward system. Who is to say?

Gimmick or genius? Let me know on any of the socials whether you think this miaowing debit card is a good idea, and whether you would consider using it (it's only for business accounts at the moment).