One evening not long ago 11 financial services commercials vied for viewers’ attention during a single hour of programming on a single network station.

That kind of pileup reflects a staggering proliferation of traditional and online financial services brands apparently aspiring to serve the needs of every possible consumer in every imaginable demographic. There are so many of you out there appealing to such a comprehensive cross-segment of potential customers that it’s harder and harder to get your message heard, let alone distinguish yourself from your competitors.

Conventional wisdom in financial services marketing holds that your customers and potential customers make their choices on the basis of rational product messages. Supposedly, factors like lower fees, accessible financial advisers, convenient office locations, and easy access to cash help determine which providers they will choose.

Most of you have tailored your marketing messages to this truism. The majority of financial services providers speak in terms of functional benefits — facts, figures, and quantifiable, tangible advantages — in their attempts to forge a consumer connection.

But this conventional wisdom couldn’t be more wrong.

At Grey Worldwide, we have investigated why your customers make the financial services choices they make. And our research reveals something surprising: The financial services brands that survive will be the ones that go beyond the facts; they appeal to customers’ feelings.

Our research began with a hunch: If feelings play such a big role in marketing packaged and other goods and services, where there is a great deal of product parity for competing brands, why wouldn’t it work in marketing financial services brands as well? After all, is there anything more charged than the feelings we have about our own money? Wouldn’t it make sense to try to connect with customers on an emotional as well as a purely rational level?

Our first step in attempting to answer these questions was an audit of the heavily advertised, highly competitive credit card market.

We discovered that the heaviest hitters — American Express, MasterCard, and Visa — all go beyond simple rational appeals to build an emotional connection. American Express is about the privilege of belonging and affinity (“Cardmember since …”); MasterCard’s “Priceless” campaign communicates that this card is much more than a piece of plastic that enables transactions; and Visa opens doors and makes you feel welcome (“Everywhere you want to be”).

We had a starting point: These companies, the most successful in the category, all understand the value of forging an emotional bond between their brands and their customers.

Our next step was a survey of 500 of your best potential customers. We chose people who invested in stocks, bonds, and/or mutual funds with a brokerage firm and consider themselves “actively involved” in their own financial planning and investment decisions.

We split the sample in half. The first group was asked to rate brands purely by functional attributes. The second group ranked them by six emotional factors:

• Familiarity — the degree to which we feel we know the brand, understand the brand, wish to get to know it.

• Relevance — the degree to which we feel the brand is immediately meaningful, a good fit.

• Accessibility — the degree to which we feel the brand is approachable, obtainable.

• Affinity — the degree to which we feel the brand is similar to us.

• Identification — the degree to which we feel the brand understands, shares, sympathizes with our thoughts and feelings.

• Desirability — the degree to which we feel the brand is worth wanting and having.

We also generated an index that would allow us to measure how much people felt the brand personality had in common with their own personality. We then asked those respondents to tell us which was the best brand for them.

Our data suggest a remarkable correlation. In the financial services category, a person’s degree of emotional connection to a brand is a much more reliable predictor of brand preference than his or her assessment of the brand’s functional attributes.

And just as significantly, we discovered that investors do not differentiate among dozens of financial services brands on the basis of functional attributes. They do, however, see differences among brands when it comes to the emotional factors we polled on.

The bottom line: When it comes to driving brand preference in the world of financial services, functional attributes simply do not mean anything by themselves. Emotional factors have the power to drive a customer to a specific brand.

Our research suggests a new solution for financial services providers looking to break through the clutter and connect with more potential customers. It’s probably not the solution you were expecting. But it’s one you can act on, and one we’re sure will make a difference for your brand.

Mr. Arno is an executive vice president of account management at the Grey Worldwide advertising agency. He heads its financial services group.

Note to Readers

"Viewpoints" is a regular feature in American Banker, appearing every Friday. It serves as a forum for discussion and debate on a wide range of issues in the financial services industry, including management approaches and strategies, legislative and regulatory matters, and public policy in general.
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