As a partner at MBLM, Rina Plapler was instrumental in creating her firm’s research on brand intimacy — the emotional science that measures the bonds we form with the brands we use and love. She’s applied this research to the financial industry in an effort to rank the companies and characteristics that make for today’s strongest brands.
Rina joins us on the podcast to discuss what makes up brand intimacy and how emotional people feel about financial services. We look at her rankings and the attributes of today’s strongest financial brands. Lastly, she provides advice to companies to make themselves into more intimate brands.
The meaning of brand intimacy
About 10 years ago, we became interested in leveraging brands in a more effective and efficient way for today’s times, given how much technology has impacted how we live, choose, read, and consume information as well as proliferation of brands. Through a long series of research, we came up with this idea of brand intimacy, which is defined as the emotional science that measures the bond we form with the brands that we use and love.
The idea is going back to the basics, where more and more neuroscience and behavioral science has revealed that we are emotional beings, and we make a lot of decisions based on emotion. Our company is dedicated to building brands that have a strong emotional foundation, and then leveraging that across all of the channels of which brands engage today.
Financial services are losing their emotional touch with customers
Financial services is an important category. Aside from health, money is a pretty serious topic for most people. It’s a category that has very high stakes, and that’s one reason it has a strong emotional foundation. The other is simply that these are the brands we tend to interact with frequently. Whether it’s a credit card, retail bank, or an online bank, these are the brands that we have occasion to frequent regularly, and that builds a stronger emotional connection. Having said that, we have found that financial services has declined over the past several years in terms of their ability to create and leverage strong emotional bonds.
Financial services’ current ranking in brand intimacy
Media and entertainment is our number one industry this year, whereas financial services is ranked at eleven. In our earliest studies, it was in the top 10, and at its highest was at six. While there are brands that are lower categories like appliances and travel, higher ranked categories include media and entertainment, automotive, and technology. So, it is a little concerning that financial services is on the decline.
There’s been a lot more communication around data breaches and hacking concerning financial services behavior reported in the news and inappropriate handling of certain situations. I also think a lot of brands in the category don’t look at building emotional bonds as a priority, as they tend to be more transactional in nature and treat customers more as a number. Similar to the travel industry, there’s a bit of frustration among customers in terms of how they’re viewed and how their relationship is prioritized.
Using technology to strengthen connection to consumers
Interestingly, PayPal was our number one ranked financial services brand up until this year. This is the first year they’ve showed a bit of decline, and it’s the first year that Amex has ranked number one. I’d say, up until this year, PayPal was sitting across generations, gender, age and income levels more effectively than some other brands. Fintech is obviously a large trend, and I think PayPal is in a good place to sort of epitomize what that is.
We have seen some shifting, and this year there was a general improvement across basically all credit card brands -- Amex, Visa and MasterCard all improved their performance -- whereas some of the other players have declined, like retail banks and PayPal.
We have a series of archetypes that were revealed and then validated through our research over the years. This was the first year where enhancement, which is about making a consumer better connected, more enabled and smarter was the top archetype in financial services, which also speaks to technology. In the past, technology was considered ritual in terms of frequency, and it now is becoming a habit, which was another strong archetype. Also, fulfillment, which is about performance and service, with the rise of enhancement in the category, speaks to the ability of financial services brands who deliver a full range of technology-enabled benefits to its consumers.
What sets Amex apart is their loyal following
It’s not that there’s any one thing that sets American Express apart, as much as it’s just doing better in a lot of the things that financial services brands are also ranking in. For example, Amex performed extremely well in terms of the enhancement archetype, and improved its performance from last year. 24 percent of customers who use Amex consider themselves in some form of a relationship with the brand, which is also higher than we’ve seen in the category. 17 percent of Amex users said they can’t live without the brand.
Amex has also improved its overall performance since previous years. 13 percent of Amex users said they’d be willing to pay 20 percent more for the brand’s products and services. In comparison, 11 percent of Visa users would be willing to pay more. Amex has that loyalist following of people that can’t live without it and are willing to pay more for it, which is ideal for any brand.
Millenials are prominent in ranking financial services
We don’t specifically track rewards, but it has been proven that rewards have been an effective way to build a relationship amongst credit card users. Amex, arguably through the years, is well known for its rewards, and it would be a good guess that’s part of its appeal. Indulgence is one of our archetypes, which is about moments of pampering and gratification, and Amex also does better than the category average in that, which could be a nod to its rewards.
It also does better with women, while PayPal is the number one brand with men in the category. What is also interesting is financial services does better with millennials than any other age group that we test. Typically, I would think financial services is strong among the 45-65 age group, or people over 30, but this year we found that millennials are ranking the category higher than any other age group.
Advice to financial services companies to create intimacy with their customers
First, start with emotion. Are you leveraging emotion, knowing that is how people make decisions? And what is the emotional connection you’re trying to establish with customers? Whether it’s based on assurances and confidence, or enhancement -- the ability to make people smarter and more connected -- examine how you’re communicating, and what you’re communicating.
Second, be relationship focused. It is important -- more and more financial services are looking to sell across a customer lifecycle. If that is the goal, behave like you’re in a relationship with your client, as opposed to considering them as a transaction. What that means could have implications for everything: from messaging and how you communicate to what you offer.
Another aspect is the channels in which you communicate. Are you everywhere your customers are? Where do you market yourself? How do you market yourself? There are lots of new digital banks that are attracting millennials by having salons and meeting sessions in interesting places, and not that that’s appropriate for everybody, but think about who you’re targeting and where they would be interested in going. Find a way to insert yourself into that level of interaction.
Other advice I’d offer is to invite dialogue, since being in a relationship means it works both ways. Today we have a lot of communication coming towards customers, but there is very little opportunity to necessarily dialogue with the brand. Make sure there are ways that consumers and customers can interact with you -- whether in person, online, in social media, or through service channels -- and give people the opportunity to feel like they’re in a relationship.
Amazon as a model company
Amazon has an online foundation but the company communicates in all sorts of ways. They don’t just inform you that your transaction has been approved, but that your package is on its way, and provide you delivery statuses throughout the process. The company will generally reach out to you -- you don’t usually have to follow up with them. Everything is very transparent in terms of what you’re receiving, and communications can happen in a number of ways: you can call, chat, or email.
More and more, Amazon is also looking at communicating in terms of special offers. The way that they’ve built up Prime as a members-only community and the benefits that offers have enabled them to raise their prices and still maintain a high rate of retention.
Other examples of high ranking companies would be consumer bands that are lifestyle-oriented, like Harley Davidson. They create communities online, and are very successful at building relationships with their customers.