Attracting Millennial Customers

By Kevin Tynan

Expecting millennials to like your bank is similar to convincing your kid that you are a cool parent. It’s never going to happen.

The job of any child from year one is to break away from parents and create his or her own identity. That means rejecting parental values, institutions and lifestyles. During the teenage years, it can be an especially painful process. But, eventually most come back to their parents’ way of thinking, if not their dress code.

The self-identity theory may partially explain why community banks find it tough to attract millennials—why their marketing campaigns are falling flat. According to a 2014 FICO survey, only 9 percent of millennials say a regional/community bank is their primary financial institution. This is a generation that needs to stress its independence by making its own financial decisions, and initially, that means rejecting the values and institutions that reflect mom and dad.

Millennials grew up in households where the parents’ primary relationship was with community banks and credit unions. In their twenties, they are still in the stage of rejecting all things parental and striking out for themselves. Rejection of parental values may be their underlying motivation but the majority cite practical excuses for selecting a national bank—flashy bank storefronts, mobile technology and big ATM networks.

Never mind that community banks offer basically the same digital services as national institutions and, in many cases, are part of larger ATM networks, millennials need to make their own decisions. Millennials have always chosen banks based on products; older customers choose based on experience.

A 2013 survey from the American Institute of CPAs shows a majority of college students give themselves good grades for their financial literacy acumen. Fifty-eight percent rate themselves as having excellent or good personal financial management skills. The evidence doesn’t support that conclusion, and evokes another interesting teenage comparison: Millennials perceive themselves as smarter than they are.

The CPA study reveals that more than three-quarters of millennials consider money spent on clothes, cars and technological gadgets as “basic expenses.” Half use a credit card to pay for basic daily necessities such as food and utilities, and 38 percent say that they had borrowed money from friends or family in the last year to make ends meet. Over 25 percent of millennials made late payments in the last 12 months or are dealing with bill collectors; their credit scores are the lowest of any generation.

Selecting a big bank doesn’t mean they are happy with the choice. Research shows that a majority of them (54 percent) prefer to work with locally owned and locally operated community banks to handle their financial needs. In fact, millennials rate the nation’s four largest banks among their ten most disliked brands. They are also twice as likely to switch banks as any other generation. Although millennials overwhelmingly select big national banks, they are receptive to smaller institutions. Our job is to find a way to bring them in.

Here are four ideas:

  1. Aim your marketing effort at millennial segments that demonstrate financial maturity. In other words, define the customer you want. These may be young growing families, career-oriented savers, credit users. All millennials don’t offer the same profit potential.
  2. Break perceptions that your’s is a bank for dads. Look for ways to reposition yourself as a younger-focused institution. Liberty Bank has sponsored a “Taco Crawl,” concerts for children, architectural bike tours and previews of Hunger Game movies to help dispel the image of a sleepy, older institution.
  3. Millennials are sinking in debt and they want advice. Give it to them by sponsoring webinars and seminars on paying off student loans, saving for a home or going debt-free. We created two comic strips for our website with tips on reducing debt. The strips both broke perceptions of a staid old institution and conveyed helpful information using a novel, contemporary medium.
  4. Partner with local organizations that have millennial appeal. Avoid blatant commercialism that will turn off millennial audiences, but consider sponsoring musical performances at coffee houses, homeownership classes with nonprofits, and free tune-ups with local bike stores

When Millennials look for financial advice, where do they turn? According to a 2014 TD Bank survey, their primary go-to source is parents. Our job is to bring them into the fold earlier.

If banks can break millennial misperceptions and offer meaningful introductions to the community bank experience, they can go a long way towards creating a customer for life. Banks may not achieve “cool” status but luring in millennials can be another way of proving that Dad Knows Best.

Kevin Tynan is senior vice president marketing at Liberty Bank for Savings, Chicago.