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In banks we trust
Study: How the financial industry is selling us a dream
Legal Disclosure: Tony Robbins is the Chief of Investor Psychology at Creative Planning, Inc., an SEC Registered Investment Advisor (RIA) with wealth managers serving all 50 states. Mr. Robbins receives compensation for serving in this capacity based on increased business derived by Creative Planning from his services. Accordingly, Mr. Robbins has a financial incentive to refer investors to Creative Planning.
Have you ever noticed yourself getting a little teary at the commercial of the grey-haired father at his daughter’s wedding, remembering her as a little girl? Or maybe you’ve had a sense of hope at the end of the ad where small business owners opened their doors for the first time.
These images stir up emotions that seemingly come out of nowhere – but do they? Or is the financial industry purposely selling you a highly processed diet of pre-packed emotions in order to sell their own products and services?
Recently, we started to detect a trend in the advertisements of financial services companies. It seemed that there were distinct patterns in the images and messaging of their campaigns. Curious, we decided to dig deeper. And it turns out there is, in fact, a particular set of emotions that we are being sold.
We reviewed twenty advertisements spanning a decade from nine of the top 15 largest wealth management firms across the United States and the United Kingdom. These are names that you know and commercials you have seen. We hypothesized that these emotion-triggering narratives were commonplace amongst big firms. We suspected that we were being sold dreams and ideals – and, most importantly – trust.
After all, there is not an overabundance of trust in the financial services industry. Most of us have the sneaking suspicion that we’re being taken advantage of, or at least being sold something we do not need or cannot afford. Therefore it is essential for these financial institutions to break through our distrust and convince us that they are “on our side.”
So how does the financial industry attempt to earn our trust? Old-fashioned consumer psychology. Most of us would like to think that we are rational human beings who make purchases – at least large ones – based on rational analysis of available products and services. But even after the words “retail therapy” entered our consciousness, the degree to which our emotions influence our behavior is underestimated at best.
Think about it, why do you use the firm you use? What made you choose that one? Did you look into the rates of return, historical liability, and the investment fees they charge, systematically researching each firm in your city and selecting the best one? Likely not. You chose your firm because you associated a positive emotion with their brand. Something about that brand made you feel good. As it turns out, “fMRI neuro-imagery shows that when evaluating brands, consumers primarily use emotions (personal feelings and experiences) rather than information (brand attributes, features, and facts)” to make decisions, according to consumer psychologist Dr. Peter Noel Murray.
Financial institutions know they cannot persuade the consuming public with reasoning, so they push our emotional hot buttons instead. “Make a strong cognitive connection with the target audience” was a top strategy of successful advertising initiatives, according to a 2010 study of over 500 bank ads.
In our study, we determined four major categories in which the ad messaging targeted our “cognitive connections”: connection, lifetime milestones & achievements, fear and giving back. And our favorite of these commercials fell into more than one category.
By far the clearest trend we found was that of narratives and images that depicted a sense of connection with others. Eleven of the 20 advertisements reviewed tapped into our human need to feel connected with friends and family. These ads are not subtle – in fact, they often use the words connect, home and family to promote their investments, loans, credit cards and mobile banking.
There was an interesting subset we noticed within this theme of connection that we didn’t initially anticipate – that of cross-generational relationships. Six of these 11 commercials showed idealized images of cross-generational connection. A son taking his father on the trip of a lifetime. An uncle holding his baby niece for the first time. A son moving his recently widowed father into his home. Of course the “families” represented look more like a heartwarming Hallmark card than the messy family dynamics most of us can relate to.
MILESTONES & ACHIEVEMENTS
The next two categories in our study tied for second place as strategies of financial services marketing: milestones and achievements. Six of these commercials focused on milestones such as buying a home for the first time, weddings, moving to a new city, and having children. You know the commercials we mean – sold signs hung in front of the beautiful new home with a loving couple picturing the days that will come in this house. A dream realized – made possible by the mortgages of [insert name here] bank.
Similar in focus are the six advertisements that demonstrated personal achievements – present or future. The best athletes in their fields, future Olympians, job interviews, etc. In both of these categories the message is clear – our investments, our loans, our services will make these types of achievements possible for you.
Our fourth category of advertisements plays into our fears: our fear of identity theft, and, after 2008, our fear of financial insecurity. We are told, “we’ll protect you,” “we’ve got your back,” “let’s move forward together.” Two of the 20 commercials in our sample fell into this category. These ads are meant to offer comfort and are a direct countermeasure to the attacks of integrity or credibility of the financial industry. We are assured that the firm, the financial industry, is not the enemy. In fact, we have a common enemy – thieves and economic depressions. “Your goals are our goals, your enemy is our enemy.”
There is one more fear we haven’t mentioned that the financial industry plays into – our fear of being trapped – or worse, boring. These advertisements sell you a lifestyle – they are invariably retirement commercials, commercials about investments promising a life of freedom.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was only one commercial from our sampling that centered on giving back. This commercial informed its audience that because their customers were such wonderful people, they decided to surprise them with personalized gifts in order to say “thank you.”
It was touching watching people receive presents that obviously excited them, and the advertisement certainly spoke to our human desire for recognition and significance. However, the gifts were obviously so personal and extravagant that the firm clearly could not have recognized each of its patrons this way. Obviously there is no free lunch and anything we receive we’ve already paid for, either directly or indirectly. Therefore although the firm was trying to display its appreciation and value for its customers, the opportunity for self-congratulatory recognition is disappointingly transparent.
Why does the financial industry pay so highly for advertising that pushes our emotional hot buttons? Why should you care? Doesn’t all advertising manipulate you into buying something?
Yes, of course. Today we are blasted with advertisements of all kinds. The average American conservatively takes in 300-700 advertisements every day, and this level of consumption has lead to a savvy consumer. Therefore some of these commercials that ran ten, or even five years ago, clearly stating “we care” or “we are you” that offer no clear benefit to us causes our inner cynic to rage.
But most of us are still largely unaware of the manipulation of our own psychology through advertising or the high price we may pay if we utilize financial services based on emotional connection rather than due diligence. As Albert Einstein said, “You have to learn the rules of the game, and then you have to play better than anyone else.” You are now aware of the game that the financial industry will play through ad messaging – now play smarter.
Header image © Goodluz/shutterstock,Article images © rSnapshotPhotos/shutterstock, bikeriderlondon/shutterstock, Maryna Kulchytska/shutterstock