If every company is a tech company, how do you stand out?

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This summer, the head of Fidelity’s brokerage business made a bold pronouncement:

Fidelity, he said, thinks of itself “as a technology company that happens to be in financial services.”

Important words, particularly at a time when consumer expectations are being reshaped by technology, and when the average person expects buying a mutual fund or trading a stock to be as easy as streaming a song or shopping on Amazon.

Trouble is, his comments are nothing new or unique:

“Two years from now, WestJet will be a digital company that happens to fly airplanes,” Ed Sims, WestJet’s CEO, writes in the latest edition of the company’s in-flight magazine.

“At our core, we’re a technology company. We just happen to make steel,” Big River Steel’s website proclaims right on its home page.

And perhaps most starkly, the pizza chain Domino’s has for years been telling anyone who will listen that they’re a technology company that happens to make pizza.

I think we can agree technology is intrinsic and integral to virtually any company’s success today, and especially in the future. So, when almost everyone is shouting their commitments to technology from the rooftops, how do you stand out?

This question occupies the time and minds of the best marketers out there, and the answer lies in why tech has been embraced inby business to such a large extent: customers.

Technology has a cost-cutting and productivity promise, to be sure. But that pales in comparison to its potential as a massive business driver. That’s why Fidelity, for example, spends something like $2.5 billion on it a year.

To be fair, I’d bet a good chunk of that money goes to maintaining legacy systems that eventually will die a quiet death, but the rest is being spent on innovation which both lets the company operate with greater efficiency, andefficiency and makes it easier or more enticing for its customers to buy.

“Enticing” is a term probably pursued by food, beverage and retail companies more often than financial services players. In finserv , the aspirational terms tend to be more utilitarian: “painless,” “personalized,” “simpler” or “less complex.”

And that’s really the punchline for financial services companies: those who can use technology to be where their customers are at any given time, to make doing business with them as frictionless as possible and make them feel unique and, frankly, special, are the ones that will win.

After all, the line “we’re a tech company that happens to…” doesn’t really mean anything productive to the average customer. We want to know that our pizza will arrive hot, fresh, and as soon as possible, and that our flight will be reasonably priced, on time and safe. We want to know that our financial services provider will act with integrity to help us plan for the future.

I care how your website looks, or how easy it is to apply for a mortgage with you. But do I care what operating system you’re using on the back end?

Technology is the tool. Customers are the “why” of it. That’s why the strongest and most meaningful pronouncements about the future of technology will come from those companies and leaders who can tie them to the needs of their customers. 

The rest will just be lost as noise.