How did a tech company which started with a simple taxi-booking app in Singapore get involved in food delivery, hotel bookings, on-demand video service, health service, lending and insurance, financial services, digital banking… and is now seeking to hire in the fields of AI, cybersecurity, data science and software engineering! Introducing you to the superapp.
A good definition of superapp: “An app reaches super status when it knits together a critical mass of services, makes them so easy to toggle across that, even if they aren’t as good as sole-purpose apps, the app becomes your OS for your digital life. The more services, the less reason to ever leave.”
Besides Singapore’s Grab and China’s WeChat, Alipay and Meituan-Dianping, others pushing into the space, include Gojek in Indonesia, Paytm in India, Rappi in Colombia, and, to a lesser extent, Kakao in South Korea, Cellulant Corp.’s Tingg in Nigeria, and LINE in Japan.
Even in the U.S. and Europe, where these integrated apps confront more-traditional business models and some regulatory pushback, giants such as Uber, Facebook, Google, PayPal and Amazon are taking steps to develop broader ecosystems built from their primary services.
According to a report by Google and Bain & Company, consumers in the MENA region are among the most connected in the world. “Forty-eight percent of UAE and Saudi consumers get their shopping ideas and inspirations online; and almost 56 percent of consumers in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt start their online shopping journeys using search engines as opposed to retailers’ websites.” The region is ripe for the rise of the ‘superapp’ – a one-stop platform that bring together different services into a single stream-lined experience.
Given the global surge of superapps, Capital Club Dubai hosted a roundtable discussion with some key players to deliberate on the evolution of this ecosystem and the challenges to be overcome.
Superapps have moved from being payment-driven to more engagement-driven, with social media and gaming platforms being in the forefront. And generally, you can’t start a superapp from scratch, but have two main entry points – a solution that can attract more customers or one where you already have a strong client base and decide to add more services and aggregate.
Customers, on average, have more than 100 apps on their phones but use about one third per month, so they are ready for an aggregated superapp with lots of services in one place. However, this is easier said than done and you could end up with a crowded and cumbersome proposition.
Engaging customers on your platform daily is a top priority and the biggest challenge. Payment is a first step, but next is to build brand awareness. Though there is sufficient evidence of customer demand for a superapp, the platforms that already have traffic can leverage further business lines. Many in the digital sector think that the social media platforms will win in this space because they are ahead of the game in terms of customer engagement and daily screentime. Though customers will continue to use the likes of Careem, Grab and Alipay, if Facebook, Instagram and Tik Tok is able to aggregate more services naturally and organically, they will be a more robust provider.
Though criticised on data infringement risks and sustainability issues, online fast fashion Chinese retailer Shein knows how to boost brand awareness and engagement, with its highly successful strategy of using social influencers for their online shopping platform. “Using an army of influencers, from student ‘campus ambassadors’ to reality stars such as Made in Chelsea’s Georgia Toffolo, Shein has amassed more than 250 million followers across its social media channels.”
Another aspect is the thematic approach being developed, with superapps becoming integrated providers of more targeted propositions like health care, insurance, youth, SMEs segmentations, etc. The concept of a superapp being ‘everything for everyone’ like Alipay and WeChat might need to find customer ‘stickiness’ beyond payment gateways. For example, Rappi in Columbia tried a few things that would require customers to open the app a few times a day, and the most successful localised service used was looking for a football goalie for matches. And on the back of this success, Rappi was able to distribute 1 million prepaid cards in six months. Superapps will have to find different revenue streams outside of the payment ecosystem.
Intuitive orchestration is on its way, and in markets such as the UAE, which is limited in terms of capacity and consumption, there are limits to how many intuitive apps you want, and it can become a winner-takes-all market. Another opportunity is in being able to create effective synergies for customers who are loyal to different service providers for different services.
Though telcos and banks, already have a large loyal customer base, data, and brand, they have not yet been able to seize the opportunity to develop a successful superapp. Besides a sense of lethargy and inability to find the right talent, generally they are not very good at forming partnerships, which is essential for this ecosystem.
Instead of different apps for different services, banks are in a good position to consolidate services and develop thematic superapps such as for SMEs, HNWIs, retail investors, etc. However, banks need to overcome their main stumbling blocks –lack of technology, difficulty in building partnerships and a mindset against risk and speed.
In fact, banks can become the backbone for the financial services sector to fulfil different offerings such as providing capital, putting in regulations, compliance as a service, faster access to touch points, BNPL provider, etc. Many different fintech services would like to partner with banks to leverage the platform and add value. The open banking and open finance systems will go through its iterations, pain and will arrive with good quality BFM (Business Financial Management) products, and banks can be a gateway.
The key for success for superapps is trust and banks have a better chance in this regard than new fintech players. There is still a legacy of relationship with the family’s primary bank which can win the race for the super financial app. And the new breed of bankers is more sophisticated in being able to navigate in the digital economy. It is highly likely that in the near future, superapps, new banks and BNPLs will converge into one entity.
Besides trust, the other requirements for superapp success include being able to offer high security, provide hyper personalised services, and be environmentally and socially responsible.
The future of retails looks like one third will have traffic in the metaverse, another third might continue to engage at physical stores and one third will be through subscription e-commerce services. The toughest challenge is keeping the loyalty, engagement, and margins – do they follow value of price or brand? Do people still want the mall experience? Shopping patterns have changed, and the value chain is going to change significantly. Retail needs to be flexible to adapt to different products and SKUs and be agile to how you operate. Rather than individual stores, it will become a third-party marketplace where everything is found. Can retail push and develop their own brands in this space or will need to again aggregate services?
Regulators, globally, are scrutinising the growing aggregation of services offered on one platform, the data privacy issues, and the partnerships created in this ecosystem. Furthermore, we are moving away from ‘cookies’ and platforms will track customers, with superapps having end-to-end control.
A recent study commissioned by Mastercard Middle East and Africa (MEA) and carried out by Economist Impact titled ‘From online bazaar to one stop shop: The rise of super-apps in the Middle East and Africa’, found specific highlights that will enable the rapid growth of superapps. Key findings suggest that locally active super-apps are proliferating across the MEA region, but larger cross-regional players remain few. The prevalence of low-end mobile phones, as well as high internet costs in the MEA, make superapps an attractive product.
“Our study clearly reflects that the development and future trajectory of super-apps is highly contextual to the geography and location in which they develop. Some of the ripe sectors in MEA that could throw up players to become superapps are insurance across the GCC, the second-hand car market, online property brokers in the UAE, and digital remittances across Sub-Saharan Africa,” said Walter Pasquarelli, Research Manager, Tech & Society, Economist Impact.
Would it be fair to conclude that a platform that services every aspect of the consumer experience in any market will be one of the most valuable companies in that market? The firm that establishes superapp leadership in the highest populated region could become the most valuable company in history.