This Branding Guru's Latest Challenge: Helping You Save Money
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because two-thirds of Americans have virtually zero savings, and he’s trying to fix that.
By James Watkins and Sean Culligan
Noah Kerner is the “millennial whisperer.” So says the man who last year recruited Kerner to become CEO of his company. Though Kerner is not quite a millennial himself (he asked that we not list his exact age), he says, “You can always stay relevant” if you “stay curious, stay hungry, you listen and you watch.” For someone who built a career on getting what it means to be cool, that ungraspable concept for those chasing it, Kerner is not “cool” — at least not in the aloof, exclusive way 2017 seems to deem desirable. Sipping a glass of water in the restaurant of a plush San Francisco hotel, he favors a T-shirt with jacket and baggy jeans, has thick, black hair and direct brown eyes, and wears a perma half-smile — a resting curious face.
Kerner’s latest project is Acorns, a fintech platform that helps low-income earners to save and invest. Acorns is not strictly targeted at millennials, but at “the 182 million Americans who make under $100,000” — so goes the company patter. The world’s “first mobile-first investing app,” says Jeff Cruttenden, who co-founded the company with his father, Acorns rounds up all your card purchases to the nearest dollar and directs these microinvestments into passive exchange-traded funds (ETFs) — a 21st-century coin jar. Some 1.8 million account holders in the U.S. now save with Acorns, for most of whom it is “achievable” to save several hundred to a thousand dollars a year, says Kerner. In a world where 69 percent of Americans have less than $1,000 in savings, Acorns is a leading fintech savings solution aimed at democratizing access to the financial industry and making it easier for low-earners to save their way to increased financial security.
But Kerner’s stint at the helm of Acorns isn’t the culmination of a long financial services career — no, he is a product and marketing guru with expertise across DJing, hip-hop culture, brand consultancy and entrepreneurship. It’s a pedigree that could just make this not-quite-millennial the conductor of a generation.
“My worldview is that marketing and product should be one and the same,” says Kerner. His philosophy on branding runs through his business strategy: Acorns just launched a personal finance education magazine called Grow. “It’s part of our brand, acorns grow into mighty oaks,” he says, reciting a company slogan. Before Acorns, Kerner was the co-founder and 11-year CEO of Noise, a product development and marketing agency that helped companies from Intel to VICE connect with “young adults” — what “millennials” used to be called before that term became grossly overused, and before companies too often appealed to a generational stereotype rather than individuals. “As soon as you start talking about building and marketing to ‘millennials,’ you get it wrong,” he says. “They’re not like a different species, you know?”
Noah, while he’s a brilliant product builder, marketer and branding mind, is much more than that.
Jeff Cruttenden, co-founder, Acorns
Noise was ahead of its time in other ways too: Together with Chase Bank, it created a credit card product aimed at college students that became the first-ever product to launch on Facebook — at the time, the social network had just seven employees and student-only usership, so the bank’s bigwigs wondered why they weren’t partnering with MySpace, remembers Manning Field, the former Chase marketing director who hired Noise in 2005. “It still sounds crazy to say it out loud,” says Field — most credit card companies’ outreach to students tended to be “a table in the student union [where] they would trade applications for T-shirts” (Field has since been hired by Kerner as Acorns’ chief commercial officer).
While at Noise, then-25-year-old Kerner wrote Chasing Cool, a book intended as “a treatise to the business world” born of frustration. “By the 50th time I heard the phrase, ‘Now how do we make this thing cool?’,” says Kerner, “I was like, ‘Oh, my God! It’s not an afterthought!’” The thesis? That coolness cannot be manufactured — it is “just total simple authenticity,” he says.
Raised in Manhattan’s East Village, Kerner started playing tennis at 2 (competitively from age 8), and showed an early entrepreneurial spirit as well — “I was one of those kids who was always selling baseball cards,” he says. But everything changed when he got his hands on a set of turntables at 13. As a self-taught DJ, he worked his way up playing nightclubs and events in New York’s hip-hop scene, and was eventually spinning for Jennifer Lopez, at a Super Bowl after-party and on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. The gigs funded most of his economics and psychology degree from Cornell, during which time he interned everywhere from Merrill Lynch to Vibe magazine. DJing “was like real-world marketing,” he says — being connected to crowds is “applicable to how products and brands move people.”
By the time he hit 28, Kerner had founded three companies: an online hip-hop culture marketplace startup called OneLevel, a music agency called Soundproof that represented Quincy Jones and Babyface, and Noise. After Noise was acquired by the London-based Engine Group in 2010, he worked with a variety of startups as an investor, adviser and board member, from WeWork to 305 Fitness.
Six months after investing in Acorns and serving as a mentor to Cruttenden, Kerner was asked to be CEO. “We wanted Noah to get as close to Acorns as possible,” says Cruttenden. “While he’s a brilliant product builder, marketer and branding mind, [he] is much more than that.”
Placing a brand guru at the head of a fintech company isn’t as strange as it sounds, says Vasant Dhar, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business. There’s not much money to be made at the margins of small portfolios (Acorns charges users $1 per month, plus a 0.25 percent commission on large portfolios), which means a company like Acorns must work hard to establish itself before someone copies its model, says Dhar. “It’s not like the big guys can’t do this; it’s not rocket science. … So in that sense, it is all about [building] brand and trust.”
Although Kerner insists Acorns is “not trying to disrupt the financial services industry,” establishing itself as the go-to savings option for the nonwealthy — and outmaneuvering some of the world’s largest companies in the process — would be a success story on the scale of Apple, itself the brainchild of a branding guru who got what it meant to be cool. With his own fiercely independent vision — after music and finance, he has his sights set on health care, he says — Kerner clearly thinks different.
Correction: The original version of this feature misstated the average amount saved in Acorns products and misnamed 305 Fitness.