A young couple with a mortgage, a young child, and one more on the way may sound like an attractive sales prospect for a bank insurance agency.

Many such households are supported by two incomes, making life insurance coverage essential in the event one of the spouses dies or can no longer work. In addition, young families need to protect their cars, homes, and other property.

"This group needs insurance probably more than anyone else," said Vivienne Gilbert, a lawyer and estate planner with Chase Manhattan Corp.'s private banking unit. "Most of these families live on two salaries. If anything happens to either one of them, the only protection is insurance."

Still, banks and consultants argue that this market - the married couple in their 20s, 30s, and early 40s - is a tough nut for banks insurance operations to crack.

This is a consumer segment that often has limited financial resources, along with a generational aversion to words like insurance and annuities.

"Initially when people in this age group come to me, they aren't as concerned about this," said Thomas Humphrey, a certified financial planner for American Express Financial Services who works at First National Bank of Milaca in Minnesota.

"Most of what we talk about is investments," he said. "Protection planning comes after that."

Indeed, agents who work in banks said education was one of their primary activities. "People are getting more sophisticated," said Vivienne Gilbert, a lawyer and estate planner in the private bank at Chase Manhattan Corp. "But most don't think insurance is something to be concerned about until they need it."

There is also the issue of this demographic group's size, relative to other age groups.

By 2000, for example, the U.S. Bureau of the Census projects those age 25 to 34 will make up only 13.6% of the total population, down from 17.3% in 1990. Meanwhile, those age 45 to 64 will make up 22.2%, up from 18.6% 10 years ago.

The group does not fit the pattern of the typical bank customer, according to the Life Insurance Marketing Research Association in Hartford, Conn.

The association plans to release a study in November or early December showing that bank insurance customers have lower incomes and are less likely to be married than the national average.

Thus, the young dual-income couple with one child or more "is a prime market, but it's not necessarily the market that banks are getting," said Preston Smith, a researcher at the association.

"It's two sides of a Rubik's cube. Those that are buying through banks are not necessarily as prime as you might think."

This age group also tends to have limited resources available to buy more expensive - and profitable - forms of insurance, particularly universal or whole life policies. Much of their income goes to fund current lifestyles.

Still, planners recommend that customers buy coverage for 80% of the income earned by each spouse, at minimum.

Term insurance is most popular in this age group because it is the least costly, and the cost savings can be invested, planners said.

Term provides a death benefit to a survivor and is typically used to provide for the costs of a funeral, household debts, and the maintenance of the surviving family's lifestyle, financial planners said.

On top of that, more expensive universal life, variable universal life, and whole life policies - which build cash value over a number of years - are used for longer-term goals, like the future support of children, including college expenses.

"You can lock in your current health status and keep upgrading the coverage without a medical exam," explained Helen Kamps, vice president for product development at Dime Investment and Insurance Services, a unit of Dime Bancorp in New York.

Younger customers also tend to be more skeptical about the advice of insurance salespeople, preferring to shop for the best price and even purchase insurance over the Internet or through the mail.

At Dime, signs in the branches, direct mail solicitations, and statement stuffers are used to pique interest and get potential customers into the branches. "It's a very needs-driven, slow process," Ms. Kamps said. "But we don't want to scare people either."

Where banks have been successful, it has been through nontraditional sales techniques, consultants said. Indeed, direct marketing makes up the bulk of bank insurance sales to this age group, according to Mr. Smith of the marketing association. Banks, with less than 1% market share in sales of property and casualty insurance, use such nonbranch avenues to proffer auto, credit, and homeowners insurance.

Chase, for example, offers a broad array of whole and term life insurance, annuities, property and casualty, and credit protection policies to its existing base of 32 million customers via statement stuffers and direct mail solicitation. A national advertising campaign begins this fall.

"Life insurance is something that has to be promoted heavily," Ms. Gilbert said. "There is so much competing information out there."

Despite the obstacles, most consultants and bankers said insurance marketing to this young generation will pay off in profits down the road.

"Selling to the young - it's almost always done as an accommodation," Ms. Gilbert said. "They are not going to be able to spend a lot on insurance as a group. But, if we haven't taken care of that customer when they're in their 20s, they aren't going to come to us when they're in their 40s."

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