Words at work

– 11 min read

“Big Sis Energy:” How Cleo built a Gen Z brand

Writer Team

The Writer Team


Earl Myers

Head of Copy at Cleo AI

The last place you’d expect to find a brand that teens and young adults love is the world of (yawn) fintech.

How do you do, fellow kids?

Yet, with 4 million millennial and Gen Z users , the budget assistant app Cleo has mastered the edgy irreverence of Gen Z-ers with flair.

Cleo’s dogged dedication to authenticity, paired with a structured and disciplined approach to brand consistency, creates a fresh voice in a traditionally boring — and crowded — space.

“When you look at everyone in fintech, there’s not many people who are offering differentiated features,” Earl Myers, Cleo’s head of copy, told us in an interview. “Our voice is the biggest USP (unique selling point) that we have.”

If you’re struggling to stand out in a highly competitive market, a similar approach to brand personality could give you an edge over the competition.

So, how does Cleo do it? We’re examining the elements of Cleo’s voice that scream “GEN Z” and talking with Earl about his process for ensuring that Cleo shines through everything the company writes.

Cleo’s voice: bold, irreverent, purposeful, and never boring

First, let’s break down how Cleo does the whole “sound like a teenager” thing.

Gleefully roasting users

If you aren’t already familiar with Cleo’s sassy voice and messaging, you might want to grab a flame-resistant suit.

Unlike traditional budgeting apps, Cleo comes with a ‘roast mode,’ where a chatbot not-so-gently shames you via reaction GIFs and harsh burns about how much you’ve spent and how little you’ve saved.

The happy accident that led to CLEO's "Roast Mode"
The happy accident that led to CLEO’s “Roast Mode”

According to Cleo’s blog, roast mode was born when their AI “created this unintentionally savage one-liner herself”:

“Congrats you’ve saved £0! Double that and you could save £0 by next month!”

Users spotted the mistake and retweeted screenshots, noting how much they enjoyed the roasting. “People just went wild for it,” Earl told us. “And we were like, well, there’s something here.”

The product team wrote an optional roast mode as a fun thing to do for Valentine’s Day, but the novelty feature quickly became a major selling point for the app.

CLEO turns Roast Mode into a feature instead of a bug
CLEO turns Roast Mode into a feature instead of a bug

Wielding ironic humor

Even outside roast mode, Cleo retains a snarky irony to its voice. Take a look at this user’s 2019 spending review, shared to Twitter:

Irony +K-Pop =GenZ-friendly copy
Irony +K-Pop =Gen Z-friendly copy

Cleo presents ludicrous spending patterns with Amazon and Uber as something to celebrate, and lets the horror sink in for budget-conscious users.

Being helpful (without being subservient)

When you need answers from Cleo, you’ll discover FAQ articles that are clear, concise, and helpful — and full of bold personality.

For example, a matter-of-fact helpdesk article on Cleo’s cash-advance feature (which offers no-interest loans for small amounts until the next payday) makes it clear that the company cares more about keeping the user’s finances healthy than massaging the user’s ego:

“We don’t offer more than $100 at the moment, because the more we offer, the less likely you are to be able to pay back.”

An example of Cleo's straightforward, take no-nonsense voice in help documentation
An example of Cleo’s straightforward, take no-nonsense voice in help documentation

There’s also a liberated aspect to Cleo’s helpfulness: Unlike feminine-gendered AI assistants like Siri and Alexa, who often ignore abusive treatment from users, Cleo will clap back at users who insult her.

Cleo will take no sh*t from abusive users
Cleo will take no sh*t from abusive users

Earl told us this was a conscious decision on the part of the writing team.

“When the product was initially made, it was done with the intention of creating a different female AI experience,” he said. “It sounds crazy, but I remember [with] Siri and Alexa, you could say terrible things to them and they would just go, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, didn’t hear you.’ Or ‘did you mean this?’ And…if you say abusive things to Cleo, she doesn’t just shrug it off. She’ll give it back to you or send you a mean gif.”

Taking a stand against inequality

Gen Z consumers don’t just expect brands to take stances on polarizing social and political issues; they expect the companies to take action. Cleo delivers on both fronts.

In a blog post entitled “FREE MOTHERF*CKING BRITNEY,” Cleo recently examined how Britney Spears’ conservatorship is emblematic of misogyny in finance, and made a loud-and-proud statement in support of Britney and “all women who don’t have control of their lives or finances through no choice of their own.”

Free Britney

Cleo’s activism doesn’t stop at publishing salty blog posts. The “Random Acts of Relief” campaign helped to put cash donated by financially stable Cleo users into the accounts of users experiencing financial hardship.

Earl Myers says that being unapologetic, especially in the pursuit of financial equity, is a central tenet for shaping Cleo’s voice.

“Knowing who you’re for is not as important as knowing who you’re not for,” Earl told us. “We never set out to piss people off. What we set out to do is just be authentic and just talk like how people talk and care about the things that people care about.”

Free Britney Celo

How Cleo’s team gives life to the world’s cheekiest budgeting app

Let’s take a look under the hood with Earl so we can see how Cleo’s writers come together to produce such a unified and clear voice across all its marketing and product channels.

Creating rules around Cleo’s personality and sense of humor

It’s a challenge to draw the line between being snarky and being downright mean. Earl says his team focuses a lot on creating boundaries, so they have freedom to play within the frameworks.

First, Cleo won’t just start bashing a user for poor financial choices unless she has permission to do so. Roast mode requires consent.

“You [the user] have to invite roast mode into your life,” Earl told us. “We don’t just come out swinging.”

Regardless of what mode Cleo’s in, the app maintains a bold personality full of tough love, which Earl’s team calls “Big Sister Energy.”

“I don’t know if you’re a big sister or a little sister, but it’s like, they care about you. It’s always with love, but also they’ll slap you around if you step out of line,” he said. “That really encapsulates [the voice] and provides a strong but minimalistic template.”

The “Big Sister Energy” brand essence acts as an editorial litmus for onboarding new writers and freelancers.

“Oftentimes, when we work with vendors or third parties, the first round of copy is just mean,” Earl said. “And it’s like, ‘no, no, no, like this, it has to have a purpose.’ ”

In other words, Cleo’s humor isn’t at the expense of users; Cleo’s humor is in aid of users.

Building empathy into user engagement

The purpose of Cleo’s tough love is to help users adopt healthier spending and saving habits. But habit-building apps have a notorious, well, habit of annoying users with too many notifications — and users eventually tune them out. Cleo’s UX and writing team avoids nagging users by following a set of chat pillars, or qualities they want to deliver in every interaction.

“Our chat pillars are intelligence, honesty, empathy, and humor,” Earl told us.

To guarantee a sense of empathy, Cleo’s product team adopts a user-led approach.

“Everybody [in the UX team] is really user-first,” said Earl. “And so like, we’re always worried like, gosh, is this spammy?…The whole product setup is structured to always be measuring open rates, to measure engagement rates. We’re always talking to users like, ‘Hey, is this too much? Is this too little?’ In some of the push notifications, Cleo asks, ‘Hey, are you hearing from me too much?’”

This empathetic approach translates to delivering highly relevant messaging that engages users without being too pushy.

“By making things super personal, like hyper-personal, we find that we can deliver interesting content,” Earl told us.

Decentralizing content production and “feeding” the AI chatbot

Creating conversational content for chatbots is a relatively new discipline, and Cleo is blazing a trail for how to bring an AI personality to life without engineering bottlenecks.

First, Earl told us that instead of people working in departments, every aspect of the product is assigned a “squad:” front-end and back-end engineers, a data scientist, a product designer, a content designer, a UX writer, and a project manager.

“They have their own unit and that allows data science to be early in all the discussions and to help come up with solutions as far as like how the NLP (natural language processing) classifier is trained,” Earl said. “If all of a sudden we go, ‘Gosh, it’d be really helpful [for users] to know all the times [they] go to McDonald’s on a Friday’…[the engineers] will just go ahead and build us that functionality. And then we can push that data out within a matter of like hours, days at the most.”

It also means that the writing team can update and add new ideas to Cleo’s responses any time they want.

“The UX team has the tooling built so that we can add [variety] to whatever replies that we want…Whatever the [writing] team dreams up, the designers and the product owners are really willing to create it,” Earl said.

Collaborating and hiring for brand consistency

As head of copy, Earl acts as the arbiter of Cleo’s voice, and drives consistency through the power of human collaboration and talent.

“[There are] two things that we do at Cleo better than anywhere I’ve worked,” Earl said. “One is we have a writer’s room on Fridays where all the writers come together. It’s a really open process: everyone’s in the room together. And I think that’s been absolutely key.”

The second key is all about hiring writers who can live and breathe Cleo’s brand essence.

“It’s hard to write characters, right? If you have to pretend to be somebody else, it doesn’t mean it can’t be done. But as far as scalability, we look for people who are already naturally inclined on those traits,” Earl said. “When somebody joins [Cleo], they’re basically given a buddy for the first three to six months [where] they’re just in it together, writing, working. And so they really get the voice in their bones and once they have it — I mean, you can see how the model works from there.”

Scaling Cleo’s brand tools for the next stage of growth

Cleo’s three-to-six-month buddy system is a powerful way to onboard new full-time writers, but getting freelancers and short-term vendors to nail Cleo’s voice out of the gate may prove to be more of an uphill battle as the company grows.

“I’m now focusing more on the external comms, marketing…and internal comms to create this seamless product [voice],” Earl told us. “To be honest, the UX writers are like, ‘We are fierce brand guardians.’ Like, they don’t even need a head of copy. The people who need the head of copy are our vendors, people who are trying to recreate the voice at this point.” (An AI-powered copy editing assistant like Writer, which helps reinforce brand and messaging guidelines as people write, is a great tool for this.)

Cleo wakes up a “boring” product for a new generation of users

Generation Z is defined by its distrust of hypocrisy, its embrace of individual truths, its pragmatism, and its fierce respect for standing up to the status quo. Cleo has succeeded in winning over Gen Z because it acts on and gives voice to the principles that define a generation. Through their dedication to authenticity, collaboration, and consistency, Team Cleo has delivered on creating a brand personality that serves as the secret to the company’s ongoing success.

Want to follow in Cleo’s footsteps, but don’t have a strong brand personality yet? Get started using The Ultimate Brand Messaging Framework.