Bragging Rates: How Millennials Redefined Cool with Financial Services

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In 2007, there was a standard playbook for aspirational high school students. If you could get into a decent college and show up to class enough to graduate, you’d get a great entry-level job, work your way up in the company, buy a nice little house in the suburbs, have 2.7 beautiful children, and retire on your comfortable pension to watch those kiddos do the same. In 2008, that Leave It to Beaver landscape started looking more like Mad Max.

Much has been written about millennials having a rough go. They carry more debt than any generation in modern history with two-thirds of bachelor degree recipients sitting an average $27,000 in the hole. Many entered the workforce in the worst economy since their great-grandparents were looking for jobs and the lucky ones faced stagnant wages and long hours. Having arrived to adulthood as the bottom dropped out of the housing market, as many as a third of millennials live with family, hoping the day comes when they can own a house.

However, that day may not be far off. Financial services marketers know they’re looking at a goldmine, especially as the generation starts to mature in their careers and shop for “adult” products. In order for a brand to resonate with millennials, it needs to understand how their experience has shifted their worldview. To this end, Merkle conducted a Neuroanalytics® study that examined millennials’ underlying motivations when making auto insurance and mortgage lending purchase decisions. What we found may redefine the entire concept of “cool.”

First, some background. Most research stays surface-level, looking at how people behave. Some will go deeper and have respondents self-report on why they did something, but our inherent personal bias often gets in the way. Neuroanalytics is a type of motivational research garnered from a proprietary combination of cognitive psychology and advanced analytics. It’s designed to discover the subconscious motivations that ultimately drive our decision-making process and quantify those motivations’ associations with product attributes and benefits. In other words, the Neuroanalytics process creates a map of why we actually buy products and brands instead of why we think we do.

This study revealed that one of the strongest motivations driving millennials’ brand choice in the financial services sector is gaining the respect of others. Millennials care so much about how they’re perceived that respect can be a powerful motivator in even the driest of categories.

And this is where it gets interesting – the primary avenue used to gain respect is to become self-reliant. Anytime a brand could provide independence or increase even the perception of responsibility, it was seen as a means to gain the respect of others. One might reasonably think things like saving money, getting a good deal, staying in a budget, and making smart decisions were tied to financial security, but each of those attributes was perceived as a way to ultimately gain the respect of others via self-reliance.

This means fiscal responsibility has become more than something to aspire to – it’s become cool. While you may not hear hip hop artists dropping nods to killer APRs and comprehensive auto coverage, millennials are increasingly rejecting the materialism of Gen X in favor of the Greatest Generation’s frugality. Having to work two jobs or live with one’s parents has made financial independence the new threshold to success; comprehensive auto insurance and a smart mortgage are the new status symbols for a generation saddled by debt and stagnant wages.

If accident forgiveness and fixed rates have become more coveted than Cadillacs and Rolexes, what does that mean for financial services marketers? It means they need to change the way they speak to millennials.

First, they must understand why millennials value their products, then position their brands as the avenue to their desired end-state. Our study suggests that insurance isn’t protecting a car as much as a reputation. An ad that plays on the embarrassment of telling your date she has to crawl through the window because the door’s caved in will be more powerful to those motivated by respect than a message about saving money.

Motivational research enables brands to craft messaging that resonates with a specific type of individual. Ultimately, brands should understand the entire landscape of their audiences’ motivations, then craft campaigns that appeal to each motivation. With today’s people-based marketing capabilities, it’s possible (with some clever analytics) to start targeting individuals by their motivation. Do that and you’re essentially telling every customer exactly what they want to hear at their very core.

As you explore new ways to connect with millennials and tap into their expanding buying power, think about what they really want in life and how you can deliver it. Challenge your strategy and creative teams to look past the obvious product features and address the deep personal values that shape each customer’s decisions. And if you’re a mortgage or insurance company, get ready – you may be getting name-dropped by the Kardashians any day now.

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