Elevating a financial scale-up with a sense of purpose

Upgrade is an innovative, rapidly-growing neobank based in San Francisco. Their mission is to deliver responsible, rewarding credit products to mainstream consumers, helping them escape the traditional cycle of credit card debt. Founder and CEO Renaud Laplanche knew – from his experience as the founder of Lending Club and a pioneer in fintech – that credit products could be made better yet. Upgrade provides families and individuals with access to funds while helping them achieve their longer-term financial goals. Upgrade has already served more than 3 million customers with over $24B in credit services.

Upgrade’s highly experienced executive team recognized that the company's visual and verbal assets were 5 years old and no longer doing the job required. They wanted to evolve their brand to support their growth strategy, develop a purpose-driven brand platform to unite the organization, and design a refined, digital-friendly identity system that empowers their internal design organization.

Brand Strategy

Authentic, purpose-driven brands are powerful. We aimed to build a more comprehensive one for Upgrade, since Renaud had already founded Upgrade based on an inspiring vision: “Upgrade’s ambition is to provide financial products that are good for you.”

Our task was to provide clarity around this ambition, develop effective brand narratives to highlight what makes Upgrade so special, and to create a solid platform for the further development of the brand.

In partnership with Upgrade’s leadership group, we crafted a fresh brand story and promise statement that communicates their ambitions in a nuanced way, inspiring the broader team to live the brand's purpose every day as they design products and provide support to their growing base of customers.

We also established four pillars for the Upgrade personality to inform the brand experience: Inviting, Straightforward, Ingenious and Helpful.

Evolution of brand elements

With any rapidly-scaling organization, rapidly-expanding brand needs naturally follow. For Upgrade, the timing was right for an evolution, and the ambition was clear. We worked with the internal design team on an identity system evolution and design system elaboration to support their growing range of product and marketing demands.

Brand Voice

With the key messages clear, the focus was on developing a new and more engaging Tone of Voice, including multiple copy samples to help writers use not just correct terminology but the bespoke personality that differentiates Upgrade from other financial technology companies.

With the tone of voice established, the purpose and brand narrative can be carefully interwoven into all communications, for example the website's About Us copy:

Visual System

Three strategic goals formed the platform for evolution: building on existing brand equity, improving the visual appeal, and increasing system flexibility for new products and marketing needs.

In our Design Strategy, we built on the brand's strategic platform with graphical principles “Optimistic, Upward, Clear, and Approachable.”

Next to these, there were a number of tactical concerns with logo, color palette and illustrations to resolve.


The evolved Upgrade "U" logo consists of a unique symbol and a bespoke wordmark, with the "Upstroke" communicating the brand promise of Upgrade. Overall friendliness and simplicity support the four pillars of the Upgrade experience: inviting, straightforward, ingenious and helpful. On second read, a 3D form appears with the face of the "U" in the space between foreground and background, offering opportunities for brand extensions and appealing signage.

The wordmark carries the essence though to visually associate the key principles with the name. Simultaneously contemporary and classic, it is a timeless, trend-resistant design that will provide brand continuity long into the future.

Remixable Illustration System

With the continual evolution of Upgrade's product lineups and the fast pace of the industry, it was imperative to have a flexible toolkit of visual assets the design team could work with quickly. We worked closely with product leadership to develop a systemic approach.

We started with multiple 3D scenes, representing major products and services. Each render was built to allow for separate components to be easily extracted for remixing with consistent lighting and camera positions, making it simple for the design team to produce new assets for other needs.

Card System Architecture & Design

A comprehensive design architecture was established to support the existing card set, as well as future expansion into new product lines (either promotional or added to the core product selection). The system introduced an improved ability to visually differentiate Upgrade's financial products on digital marketplaces like Credit Karma that form key touchpoints for Upgrade customer journeys.

We tested the new card designs with consumers – both current Upgrade users and prospective customers. Proving very popular overall, it scored highly against both the existing cards and other designs against nearly all brand attributes, particularly on critical keywords like "straightforward" and "empowering".

A key requirement of the system evolution was to increase the range of colors available for account cards, new initiatives, product differentiation, design system components, and marketing. In addition, there was a desire to unify color application across not just physical and digital products, but also in everyday environmental applications.

Figma Guidelines

In order to support rapid deployment of brand assets, a simple single-page guidelines file in Figma helped the product team bring core elements into their development process instantly, even while details were being finalized and the system formalized and approved.


The refined Upgrade brand supported the organization’s impressive growth, helping Upgrade:

  • Grow from 2.2 million to 3.3 million customers
  • Gain recognition on Deloitte Technology Fast 500 list, ranking #105 with 1,397% revenue growth over a 3-year period
  • Attract talent to expand to 1400 employees and be listed on Forbes: Fintech 50 & America's Best Startup Employers 2023 lists
  • Achieve a 4.5/5 rating on NerdWallet (higher than leading competitors Chime and Current)