Reopening, robos, and purpose

Practical tips for financial marketers as consumer trust evolves

In a high-stakes industry like financial services, societal change often makes the stakes even higher. Amid change and uncertainty, one value remains paramount: trust. Sullivan has long had a front-row seat to how financial institutions build trust with their clients, and how integral trust is to their brands and marketing.

The drivers of trust in financial services continue to be shaped by big moments. Consumers had vastly different concerns in a post-9/11 world than they did in the wake of the financial crisis, when institutional trust had been decimated. Even the early days of 2020 looked markedly different from the middle and end of last year, when election cycles heated up and the pandemic had continued its toll.

Now, with murmurs of a “reopening” world, marketers are eager to deploy the right communications and messaging. But the concept of trust has again been turned on its head. How should that shape financial marketers’ playbooks?

We’ve married trends we’re seeing across our financial services portfolio with some data from the latest edition of Edelman’s landmark Trust Barometer in Financial Services Report to provide some concrete suggestions.

A rollercoaster year for trust in financial services

Not surprisingly, during the last year of hardship and polarization, trust in most institutions collapsed globally. While the financial sector fared better than others—trust fell only 2 points in the US and remains at relatively neutral levels—one finding was alarming.

At the start of 2020, trust in financial institutions was high. But then came a 7 point decline between May 2020 and January 2021, signaling a watch-out for the industry. In response, financial brands should integrate tried and true tactics for reestablishing trust into their communications planning, including:

  • Emphasizing frequent, transparent outreach—with personalized messaging across the most relevant channels for each client
  • Providing additional access to and guidance from relationships teams or advisors
  • Developing timely content that doesn’t just convey expertise, but offers a distinctive point of view to reinforce the value you provide
Robos aren’t so sexy anymore.

Trust has declined most sharply in robo advisories and digital wealth managers—down a full 8 points in the US.

In some ways, this is surprising as many traditional firms have been fixated on competition from robos. But it’s an important reminder that no financial company can rely only on technology for service or advice.

Firms of all types are responding—and even previously digital-only companies like Robinhood are furiously hiring real humans to service their customers.

What does this mean for marketers?

  • It’s a good time to play up your people in your messaging to help combat fears.
    • For traditional firms and brokerages, that may mean centering advisors.
    • For robos and digital wealth managers, it could be about highlighting humanity in a way that doesn’t overshadow tech efficiencies.
  • And as all of these firms keep hiring and face increasing competition, crafting a strong and specific employee value proposition will go a long way—not only for recruiting purposes, but for your brand overall.
Do the right thing.

Finally, the past year has spurred a rising social consciousness, and that came through even in a sector that’s traditionally apolitical. 62% of financial services employees are now more likely than they were a year ago to speak out about social issues or engage in protests at work. This figure is the highest among all sectors surveyed, including technology, professional services, healthcare, and education.

Further, a whopping 98% of firms rate ESG-focused communications as important or very important, and 83% plan to increase their focus on them this year. Sullivan clients have also prioritized ESG messaging and campaigns in 2021, mirroring a larger trend we’re seeing across sectors: a heightened emphasis on purpose—and a desire to communicate about it with authenticity.

But firms—and marketers especially—should not embrace purpose for the sake of it. Instead:

  • Start by developing a thoughtful strategy for your firm’s socially-conscious messaging or ESG communications, ensuring they reflect your brand and feel specific to your business. Otherwise, they won’t resonate.
  • The same holds true for D&I-related communications and internal messaging for employees. Codifying your stance will entail an evaluation of the values you want to lead with, an in-depth understanding of what others in your space do, and a carefully laid-out plan for how communications should come to life.

As drivers of trust continue to change, it’s more important than ever for financial services firms to remain nimble and communicative. Those who can will help the sector remain reliable and trusted even in the face of uncertainty.