Think of the last five ads or pitches you recall seeing for any financial services products recently. What has been the primary theme or hook? My observation has been that most if not all of these products look to dangle the lure of more – specifically, of having or getting more, with the product or service being pitched. The assumption is that the prospect or intended “target” is sold because he/ she gets a better deal, and that’s the end of the story. This has always caused a low-grade dissatisfaction in my mind – I’ve always found them wanting and unsatisfactory as a pitch, and yet have never been able to pinpoint, leave alone articulate why that is the case, and what would truly make me happy or excited to try something new.

I ran across a book recently by pure chance, and reading it showed me with blinding clarity why I’d come up feeling empty and underwhelmed with all these pitches – I’m the quintessential “project-person”: there is always something or other that I am in the process of fixing or improving in my life – whether it is my diet, my system of working, or allocating my portfolio. It seems as natural as breathing to me, and I can be counted to have at least 3 or 4 of these projects going on in my life at any given moment. Until recently I had resigned myself to just being a nerd or a geek.

But when I started reading “The Transformational Consumer” by Tara-Nicholle Nelson, suddenly the fog lifted: I may be a nerd, but by no means was I an oddity or even uncommon. I was merely one of a breed of consumers she terms “Transformational”: the key characteristic of these individuals being that they are all exactly like me: seeing life as an endless series of improvement projects and expending time, energy and money in seeking to get healthier, wealthier, and wiser.

The core problem with market positioning in financial services:

One of the reasons, probably a primary reason, for consumers becoming increasingly jaded by and immune to marketing messages is that at the core, they can sense that the purveyors of products and services are all about getting that one transaction done. In other words, they approach their entire business with a transactional mindset.

In this world view, success then becomes an aggregate of an enormous number of profitable transactions which then leads to financial success, which is the end goal anyway. While consumers in the past may have been more tolerant of this stance, Ms. Nelson proposes that this approach will fail resoundingly with transformational consumers. The inevitable result is that unless companies change their view of their consumers, and consequently their approach and value proposition to them, all they’re likely to see is increasing amounts of marketing spend chasing smaller and smaller successful market exchanges, also known as “sales”.

The hero of a perilous journey

Photo by Kalen Emsley 

Who is this transformational consumer and what does she want?

The transformational consumer is engaged in an adventure, a hero’s journey, in which she has resolved to achieve a difficult goal. She knows that the journey is hard, she knows that she has big obstacles to overcome, but most importantly, she knows that allies, tools and support can make the difference between victory and failure.

The subject of this adventure is typically one of three types of quests: a quest to get healthier, wealthier or wiser. Of course, these are not mutually exclusive categories, and a quest may help her achieve more than one: for example, by learning to consume less, she may end up de-cluttering her life (health and self-actualization), as well as saving money on needless purchases (wealth).

She spends an enormous amount of time, money and energy in her efforts to be successful in this quest. For example, if her quest is to lose weight (“healthier”), she may spend hours scouring the internet for healthier recipes, or even organic or safer ingredients for beauty products for her body. If the quest involves wealth, such as for example, succeeding at her own business or “hustle”, she may spend her time taking classes to learn better online marketing.

For any company in any field to succeed in engaging her attention and enlisting her patronage, Ms. Nelson contends in the book that such a provider must position themselves (and anything they offer) first and foremost as a mentor, tool or adviser to her in this journey. By doing so, they will first attract her attention, then her appreciation, until finally they get lifelong love for the company and product.

Does this approach actually work? You must judge for yourself, but I was certainly favorably impressed by her track record of successful customer engagement at MyFitnessPal, the free fitness app that was sold to Under Armor for just under half a billion dollars, as well as with Trulia, the real estate app.

Ms. Nelson communicates her message with warmth, passion and extremely compelling logical arguments. if nothing else, they rang true to me just based on my own personal experiences, and even a brief glance at the big bucket discretionary spend from my last few weeks more than abundantly proved her claim, at least in my personal case.

Leaving aside my personal experience, I did an informal and brief scan over the next few weeks to see which providers and companies in any space I shopped for tended to promote these supportive messages to transformational consumers. Anecdotally at least, I saw a fair sprinkling of this progressive messaging a lot more in the health segment, but almost none in the financial services segment, with the possible exception of student loans.

The opportunity in financial services

What does all this mean for financial services? First and foremost, getting wealthier, whether it is by reducing debt, earning more, or through other means, is definitely one of the trifecta in the quest of most transformational consumers to get healthier, wealthier and wiser. If Ms. Nelson’s claim that as many as 50% of the overall market comprises transformational consumers is true, then it makes sense for every provider in this space to take a good had look at her claim and test its truth in their own space with small and fast experiments.

The first task for any company is to figure out specifically what types of quests women in their primary audience are undertaking. For example, let’s say that women are looking to do three things relating to wealth:

  1. Get out of debt
  2. Take care of their kids
  3. Provide for their future

If you’re an insurance provider, or a tax accountant, for example, you might be tempted to give up right at this point concluding that this paradigm could not possibly be applicable to your business.

But you’d be wrong. The key is to figure out what support even remotely connected with your offering would really help your customer reach this goal successfully, and then figure out how to offer that in a way that allows you to tastefully and gradually feature your offering as part of that solution.

For tax accountants, that might be as simple as a newsletter that highlights simple strategies that will help them save for the future AND reduce their taxes. For an insurance company, the trick will be to go beyond the obvious – which is to promote just buying the insurance product as the single step needed to achieve the goal.

This is because victory in a long-term adventure to achieve a worthwhile goal is never a one-step deal, and every smart consumer knows this. So it behooves the provider to take the trouble to be a lot more thoughtful in talking to their customers, understanding their true challenges, and then designing a thoughtful portfolio of solutions that truly help her achieve the goals she knows are hard to begin with.

Photo by Jungwoo Hong 


But the results will be well worth it. Even going beyond Ms. Nelson’s eye-popping engagement results she quotes in the book, the approach feels naturally right, and one that will have the added benefit of revealing previously unsuspected customer needs that a provider can then seamlessly and efficiently discover, design and then offer to these customers. When she is in love with what you have to offer her to support her journey, the sale becomes almost unnecessary.

Reference: The Transformational Consumer: Fuel a Lifelong Love Affair with Your Customers by Helping Them Get Healthier, Wealthier, and Wiser, by Tara-Nicholle Nelson.