What makes a financial services firm relevant?

jerry By Jerry Johnson

Money is a commodity. You won’t find much difference between the dollar bill you have in your pocket today and the one that may show up next week. Indeed, even the physicality of money is disappearing. Now it is just a number on your banking app.

But while money is a commodity, it is also a lightning rod. There are few things that spark more emotions and personal sensitivities than money. While this has always been true (remember, like politics, it isn’t something to be talked about in polite company…), it is particularly true in today’s environment where people lurch from one economic crisis and financial meltdown to another.

We learned a lot about the topic when recently for a related project; we reviewed hundreds of financial services firms’ advertising campaigns over a five-year period. The idea was simple. Companies spend billions pouring money into 30-second ads. We thought it reasonable, therefore, to assume that these ads are somehow reflective of what these companies assume is most relevant for their potential customers.

We found that the campaigns tended to fall into one of five positioning “buckets:”

  • You can have confidence in us;
  • Our size makes us important;
  • We are the intelligent choice;
  • We cherish relationships; and
  • We have values beyond the accumulation of wealth.

And further, what we found was this: while historically financial institutions have focused on confidence, recently more and more financial institutions focus on the “softer” elements of relationships and values. In general, we’re seeing institutions move from the colder elements of “big,” “smart,” and “bold,” to the softer elements of “connections” and “ethics.”

For years, the most common theme in financial services was that of “confidence” and its sister emotion, “fear.” Why? Because so few of us are confident and so many of us are fearful about money and our financial futures. We saw this 20 years ago in doing work with The Prudential. People want a “rock of Gibraltar.” We see the counter – confidence vs. fear – in a series of ads from John Hancock (done by Hill Holiday) with two people texting and coming back to that lingering question … “will we ever get through this thing called retirement?” There are many, many other examples of this (e.g. Ameriprise’s “You Need a Plan” with the late Dennis Hopper), but it all is an interplay of confidence vs. fear. The idea is to gain relevance by providing confidence in an uncertain world.

Then there is relevance through scale. That is, reminding folks that you are big and therefore important. Some 20 years ago, Riggs National Bank launched a famous commercial that touted the Washington DC institution as the “most important bank in the most important city in the world.” Size, scale, heft is another primary theme that runs through financial services messaging. Back when too big to fail was still too big to fail, this was the natural evolution of a “fear” message. Don’t be afraid, we’re big. Moreover, with “big,” you can do anything. “Big” is empowering. “Big” is macho. Taken to its extreme, you can see it played out in one of my favorite commercials, Anthony Hopkins’ spot for Barclay’s appropriately titled: Big.

The “when E.F. Hutton talks … people listen” campaign was the epitome of positioning a financial company as the smart, intelligent choice. Relevance comes by being the company with unique insight into what is a chaotic and scary world – that of finance. State Street follows this approach. State Street’s advertising features a dog who, in turn, signifies the intelligence and tenacity of the brand and “the need to be precise … designed to please … precise in a world that isn’t.” Of course that makes State Street the intelligent choice.

But the trend is clearly moving away from fear, size and intelligence to those things that take a more human and humane form.

We see a lot more focus on relationships. This runs counter to the popular notion that finance is cold and impersonal; that money comes first, people second. Financial companies often try and position themselves against this stereotype by showing that they put people before profits and actively seek to know their clients on a personal level (e.g. “every client is different”). It is relevance through relationships.

No financial services brand has done more in this area than State Farm. It is their motto … “like a good neighbor.” We know it is based in part on their corporate franchise structure where offices are staffed by local professionals. [Note, in the aftermath of the recent recession, State Farm has drifted into the “values” campaigns. Their recent “back to basics” campaign is a great example.] This “everyone is different” approach is also at the heart of HSBC’s advertising that takes the concept of “big” and applies it to the neighborhood. By showing the same image can mean opposite things, HSBC underscores its knowledge and understanding of the local market.

Many regional banks, seeking to exploit their “smallness” as an asset, often use this relationship theme in their brand marketing.

But what we see even more of as institutions and brands adjust to the new world of austerity and uncertainty is a focus on values. That is, convincing the public that despite the fact that you are a financial services firm, you actually have them (values, that is). The famous MasterCard series is a great example. The line “for everything else” tells you that MasterCard recognizes that what they do is small potatoes compared to what is really important. Recently, financial institutions have pitched this in a much more blatant manner. The Ally Bank series that accepts the central belief that banks have no values … and then uses that to tell people what Ally is NOT. On the positive side are the current ads by Liberty Mutual showing that “caring is contagious.” The “responsibility, what’s your policy?” is a clear value statement that they want people to recognize when they think of Liberty Mutual.

Values and finance. Many would label the two incongruous, especially since values deficits have contributed to debacles like the subprime mortgage crisis and raised pervasive doubts about the entire financial industry.

Many consumers are now desperate to see evidence of solid values from their institutions, financial and otherwise. That’s likely why values are increasingly relevant for financial services today. Just as acting on values is the right thing to do, demonstrating you’re committed to values is a promising path to relevance. If you’re in that business, try it.