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Why Financial Brands Must Now Take Bigger Risks

From volatile markets to a regional banking crisis and the specter of a looming recession, today’s financial brands are dealing with an especially fraught and complex environment. Advertising in the $3.6 trillion financial services category has to reflect that complexity. It has to speak to real people and provide clear solutions to real problems.

Unfortunately, that is not what we see.


Those ubiquitous slice-of-life scenes of newlyweds planning their financial futures and retired couples seeking out a wealth advisor ring hollow at a time when many Americans are deciding whether to cut back on groceries or Netflix. A recent Deloitte survey found that approximately 60% of millennial and Generation Z consumers had canceled a streaming subscription in the previous six months.


Financial services companies are risk managers by definition. But that does not mean financial brands have to be risk-averse in the way that they talk to customers. On the contrary, now is exactly the time not to play things safe. Legacy institutions including brokerages and insurance providers are being bombarded by threats from insurgent challenger brands, many of which are promoting their unconventional business models with equally disruptive marketing. 

Take the NerdWallet ads, for example. These spots deftly use humor to illustrate how anxiety or fear can lead to paralysis in financial decision-making. One woman is suspended “up in the air,” and another “dragging her feet,” over a choice between high-yield savings accounts. A man is “on the fence” about his rewards credit card. In each scenario, the NerdWallet app is the hero and grounds the customer by arming them with tools to make more informed choices.

What is the problem you’re solving for?

What makes ads like the NerdWallet campaign effective goes beyond empathy. The key lies in their specificity. Today’s investors want to know that their financial institutions are prepared to help them tackle very specific problems: inflation, cost of living, buying a home, paying for kids’ college education and saving for retirement. 

Instead of addressing these concerns head-on, financial marketers often revert to pushing messages about their products and services. The goal is to build awareness by conveying as much information as possible, without making promises that the firm cannot keep.

But there’s a better way to generate awareness: create memorable ads. 

Of course, the creative bar is higher in a stressful and challenging environment. Brands were widely criticized at the start of the pandemic for the sameness of their ads and for what were perceived as empty expressions of support.

Yet many brands actually did show support by addressing a specific consumer need — for example, by offering unlimited data to cell phone customers so they could stay connected or extending free auto insurance coverage to people who were sheltering in place.

Today’s financial brands can follow a similar playbook by acknowledging the economic anxiety that many consumers are feeling without being compelled to strike a universally somber tone. While the tactics may differ from one brand to the next, here are the central tenets of a forward-leaning strategy:

No Customer Left Behind

Traditional segmentation practices handicap the marketer by limiting a potential audience before the campaign even gets off the ground. Reverse segmentation upends the conventional idea that only certain audiences and messages are available to the brand. In this democratized age of stock trading, why should a pitch for wealth management be confined to older consumers?

Conversely, in the current economy, many middle-aged consumers — not just their kids — are as concerned about making car payments as they are about saving for retirement. 

Develop Concepts That Solve Specific Problems

Nobody makes financial decisions in a vacuum. Questions about how we spend our money are both deeply personal and deeply specific — and this level of importance and urgency should be reflected in advertising. Ads must be creative with a purpose: What is the one barrier that we can help you overcome and how, and with what product or service? 

Thus, an ad might address the difficult — and specific — choices that a Gen Z customer has to make in the middle of a sizable college loan payment. Or it could depict the struggle of a millennial couple seeking to purchase a home in a rising interest rate environment that creates pressure to make an immediate offer. How do they deal with these scenarios? The details don’t just matter — they’re everything.

Tell The Story From The Customer’s POV

Customers faced with financial pressures want to feel the opposite of what they are currently feeling. That is the gauntlet financial brands must clear: to replace distrust with trust, and to replace fear with security and peace of mind. 

In order to do that, brands must tell a personal story with an injection of reality. That newlywed couple might be planning their future while the bride’s father is voicing concerns about how to pay for the wedding. That 20-something on-the-go stock trader might pause to call his broker to question whether the market will remain solvent or if he should transfer more of his investment funds to a safer money market.

There’s nothing ordinary about today’s economic challenges, so why should financial advertising be content with the ordinary? Now is the time for financial brands to push the boundaries of their creative strategies. There’s no use getting lost in the middle amid a sea of sameness ads.

It may be risky to take a different approach to marketing, but isn’t it riskier to not be noticed? To be relevant, we must take a risk.

View the article on SmartBrief here.