I’m a dedicated cord-cutter, but when I visit my family during holidays, I’m dumped back into the world of cable television. For the first few days, I’m always curious to see what sorts of commercials are running. Before the commercial break curiosity loses a bit of its shine, I find it interesting to see what hasn’t changed at all: Car ads that feel just the same as the nineties. Pharmaceutical ads with their familiar gibblegash of side effects and considerations. Financial ads featuring a caring father, taking the brave step to protect his family or ensure his retirement by speaking to a financial advisor.
In some places, the classics keep on giving. But in the same way that marketers have branched out from long-standing mediums to embrace new forms of marketing content and experiences, it makes me wonder whether we’ve made similar progress with the audiences to whom we market.
And perhaps in no other vertical is this question more relevant than financial services marketing.
How, or even if, financial services brands should market to women is a frustrating question to look into. Over the past twenty years, it’s been the subject of recurring debate and research.
The primary drive for this conversation has been the changing face of the economy. In place of the male breadwinner stereotype of the fifties, more households than ever are working couples with equal earning potential (though women continue to face exclusion on this front as well). Furthermore, women have for a long time now been primarily responsible for family buying and banking decisions.
And still, most financial services marketing globally continues to primarily target men, despite women’s increased economic power. One unsatisfactory answer for the status quo is that women aren’t a viable segment for financial marketing—that it’s too difficult a tactic to track, and it isn’t a primary driver for brand success. Improvements to targeting tech aside, this explanation ignores the heavy tilt towards women being responsible for family financial decisions, and it doesn’t explain why targeting men is a more viable approach as opposed to a more gender-neutral stance. It begs the question of whether long-standing norms—call it habit, tradition, bias—in financial services marketing have resulted in a blindspot for brands.
Alternatively, there’s an institutional side to the problem. From male-dominated leadership in banking to the imbalance women face climbing the career ladder at financial services firms, it appears that leadership in the finance industry might not have the perspective necessary to move the needle from the status quo. This issue is larger than improving the scope of a brand’s marketing, certainly. But suffice it to say that marketers have always been the persuasive arm of any company—if internal perspective is to shift towards healthier business and cultural practices, marketers may be in the best position to make it happen.
Marketing teams tend to have a funny “hurry up and wait” mentality when it comes to evaluating strategy and tactics. On the one hand, we have objectives to meet and a competitive landscape that necessitates creativity and constant innovation. On the other hand, there seems to always be a handful of assumptions, tools, or approaches that remain unshakeable, a comforting foundation for the ever-changing work they support.
Audience targeting and personas are one space where this sort of stagnation can most easily happen. Brands tend to have established audiences and segments that are functional—as long as continuous growth is in reach and conversion is happening year to year, why should marketers stop to fix what isn’t broken? But this attitude gives bias a ripe place to grow, and marketers can lose out on opportunities to rapidly improve growth and community in lieu of only addressing declines as they appear.
Fixing this requires some soul searching for your brand, with frequent review of your marketing personas, segmentation strategy, and the overall assumptions about your industry that define everyday operations. In particular, when was the last time your team sat down to discuss what characteristics drive your audience, and who might embody those characteristics who didn’t previously?
Each particular brand will differ from case to case, but in terms of cadence a good rule of thumb is to either re-evaluate ahead of any new product releases that require promotion or on a regular quarterly or yearly schedule. Regardless of how and when your team does this review, there are just two core questions that have to be asked: Are our primary drivers for targeting still relevant, and is there an audience or segment that’s become excluded because of assumptions our team holds that aren’t reflective of our marketplace reality?
Image attribution: Rawpixel.com
There are two primary ways your brand can go about welcoming in a new community or target segment.
The first and most common is an inclusive approach. The goal of an inclusive approach is to maintain a “business as usual” appearance for your content engine while rolling out new pieces or updating old ones to display, address, and include the target segment you want to welcome in. It can be as simple as choosing better imagery to accompany blog content or as elaborate as including segment-specific recommendations and insights in your work. Additionally, your team’s distribution efforts should also expand to include communities within your new segment to get a flow of new users visiting your content and brand pages.
For example, we’ve seen a number of online banking brands lean into the millennial market despite disdain from traditional banking entities. The result has been wins for brands like Ally Bank, which creates content tackling questions that primarily impact their millennial segment, like college debt versus retirement saving, but without requiring an announcement or separate content portal for them. It’s a natural expansion for their audience that’s kept the newer bank nimble as their market continues to evolve.
This approach is a healthy one for brands that want to make continuous, small refinement of their audiences over time, or who want to include audiences whose previous exclusion could be embarrassing for the brand. It also requires the least lift from your content team, as this change happens at the production level and just requires some additional details or focus to be taken into account.
Alternatively, for brands that want to make a big move on an open market opportunity, an exclusive content approach might be appropriate. In exclusive demographic capture, a brand leans publically into the fact that they’re welcoming in a new segment and creates material and promotion specific to that effort.
We’ve begun to see this in a few places in financial services marketing. For instance, Ellevest has cut out a powerful niche for content geared specifically to women investors. The brand doesn’t pull any punches, addressing institutional and cultural obstacles that are unique to women breaking into investing directly, while providing actionable insights that help their investors succeed. All of this works in response to the fact that female customers felt less confident or prepared to make investing decisions, despite making most of their family’s banking decisions. Whereas other brands thought this fact excluded women as a segment, Ellevest saw a curious and driven audience looking for a chance to be brand loyal—all it took was the right content for the right people.
The lesson for financial marketers—and any content marketer for that matter—is pretty simple. If you aren’t constantly evaluating your team’s assumptions about your audience over time, then you’re leaving opportunity on the table and a willing audience out in the cold. Seek opportunities to expand your brand conversation, accept that your audience must necessarily change over time, and above all don’t be afraid to advocate internally for changes in practice and perspective that will enable your brand to serve more people, better.
Because if there’s anything that the lack of marketing to women from finance brands teaches us, it’s that no brand is above making an oversight that leaves fifty percent of their potential audience completely forgotten—and ready for the first brand to step up and serve them.
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Featured image attribution: Tanja Heffner