A quick and expensive way to target the emerging affluent would be to slap down a yuppie label on certain households and mail them mass-produced marketing literature.
But a former Fed researcher is telling investment managers to move past stereotypes, look at what prospects actually need, and develop more products to pitch to them.
"We've tended to use very generic products with crude distribution," said Frederick O. Yohn, vice president of Conning & Co., an asset management research firm based in Hartford, Conn., and that has led to blunt marketing messages.
"You have to figure out what they'll respond to before you walk in the door," Mr. Yohn said. "Actually, you have to figure that out before you mail them something."
To get started on his recently released study, "High Net Worth Market for Financial Services," Mr. Yohn combed the Federal Reserve's 1995 Survey of Consumer Finances - published by his former employer - along with the Commerce Department's Current Population Surveys.
He quickly decided that demographic factors such as age, income, and address could not be relied upon to signal investment habits. So Mr. Yohn focused instead on spending behavior and perceived needs.
Across the board, he found that net worth had nothing to do with how people invest. Mr. Yohn said upwardly mobile middle-class people - the most coveted group of prospects besides the wealthy - are especially hard to pin down.
Pigeonholing the so-called emerging affluent could lead to poor marketing that costs more than potential fee income, Mr. Yohn warned. And other experts agreed.
"The emerging affluent has subsets - it's hard to say what they want," said Michael P. Kostoff, managing director of Advisory Board, a Washington- based private banking consultant firm.
Mr. Kostoff said emerging affluent people can range from a well-paid but high-spending baby boomer who still needs credit to an executive close to retirement who is on the verge of cashing in corporate stock options.
"When you look across the industry, everyone has different definitions as to who the emerging affluent are, which is why you see different strategies," he added.
Many banks, for instance, roll out flexible asset allocation programs. These institutions realize that within the emerging affluent, few share investment goals.
Instead of trying to divine what a prospect wants, risk profile questionnaires tell money managers what to pitch, according to Mr. Kostoff. "Mass-customized financial planning or do-it-yourself stuff," he said, is successful at mutual fund companies.
"Those mechanisms, wrap accounts and asset allocations, help (people) invest because they don't have time," Mr. Kostoff said.
But Mr. Yohn warned that current off-the-shelf products do not address all needs. He said mass marketing should stress financial planning first and then get into investment choices.
"It's not rocket science - any insurance agent, broker, or private banker intuitively learned how to do it," Mr. Yohn said.
He added that marketing materials can speak to the same issues. "It doesn't have to be high-cost - it has to be effective," Mr. Yohn said.
Bankers said they already have a range of investment, deposit, and credit products in their cupboards. They just need help getting the word out.
"The only difference between us and Fidelity is marketing and distribution," said Fernando Garip, a vice president of New Jersey's Summit Bancorp.
Mr. Garip said branch networks are distribution naturals, as long as tellers are attuned to sending large, frequent depositors to investment representatives.
"I could be doing cartwheels in terms of performance and not get anywhere without marketing," he added.