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Meghan McCarthy, SVP, Media & Activation Services, Fusion92


Bob Verrico, Co-Founder, Executive Chairman, InvestingChannel


Kristie Tillinghast, VP, Advertising & Media, State Street Global Advisors

Messaging & Tonality

During Uncertain Times

Communicating with Financial Audiences

in The Here & Now

This interview is the fourth of five in a series of interviews designed to bring clarity to the financial marketing industry at an uncertain time. Gramercy Institute fielded a study at the beginning of the pandemic crisis, called “Crisis Response 2020: Understanding Financial Marketing in Uncertain Times.” The results of the study are eye-opening to say the least.


Gramercy Institute invited the following leaders together to discuss an essential question that is on the minds of every financial marketer, agency, media company and service provider—right now: What is the most appropriate messaging for financial marketers to use today (right now) when connecting with audiences? Also, what kind of tone should our messaging be taking? We are fortunate to have the following expert panelists with us today.


  • Meghan McCarthy, SVP, Media & Activation Services, Fusion92

  • Kristie Tillinghast, Vice President, Advertising & Media, State Street Global Advisors

  • Bob Verrico, Founder & Executive Chairman, InvestingChannel


WREAKS: Panel, thank you all for joining me to discuss this important topic: Defining and discussing the most appropriate messaging and tonality for financial marketers to take today when communicating with target audiences. 


It is a pleasure to have such a brilliant  group with us. I will also point out how fortunate we are to have all points of views represented here. Meghan, who works at Fusion92, comes from the agency side of our financial marketing industry. Kristie, has been a leader at SSGA (State Street Global Advisors) for a significant part of her marketing career and comes to this discussion with a financial firm perspective. Meanwhile, Bob, in his role at InvestingChannel works with many, many agencies as well as with many leading financial brands on a daily basis and represents the media perspective in our industry. We have plenty of expertise to pull from. So, let’s get to work.


Before I ask my first question, please consider these facts: In a study titled “Crisis Response 2020: Financial Marketing in Uncertain Times,” completed last month by the Gramercy Institute, it is apparent that financial marketers have clear views on the appropriate messaging and tonality for financial marketers to use during these unusual and uncertain pandemic times. 


In a study survey of 141 senior marketers from major financial firms, completed last month (post lockdown) by the Gramercy Institute, here’s what we asked:

During this crisis, how would you characterize the majority of your outbound messaging? (check all that apply).  


  • Crisis-Specific (73.3%)

  • Brand-Related (33.33%)

  • Corporate (27.62%)

  • Product-Related (25.71%)

  • Direct-Response (17.14%)

  • Other (11%)


We also asked: We've listed some typical financial product attributes below. At this time, which ones seem MOST appropriate to promote financial products right now (in this crisis)? (Check no more than three)


  • “It’s More Secure/Safe” (74.2%)

  • “It Offers More Sound Advice” (41.9%)

  • “It Saves More Money” (29.52%)

  • “It’s More Personalized Service” (24.71%)

  • “It’s a Better Customer Experience” (22.86%)

  • “It Provides Higher Quality” (19.05%)

  • “It Generates More Money” (10.48%)

  • “It’s More Convenient” (7.62%)

  • “It Offers Prestige” (0%)

Worth Noting: Gramercy Institute also asked this same group “which ones seem LEAST appropriate to promote financial products right now and “It Offers Prestige” led the pack with 80% feeling that this message seemed LEAST appropriate.


An Expert Virtual Panel Discussion

Gramercy Institute has been moderating about a 90 different financial marketing panel discussions each year for the past 18 years. For obvious reasons, a live-action, in-person panel discussion is not in the stars for our industry now or in the weeks ahead. Still, it doesn’t mean that the brightest minds in the industry cannot step forward to share their thinking in a virtual format for the intellectual benefit of our entire industry. So, here you have it.


It should be noted that, when asked about this idea, our good friends at InvestingChannel immediately stepped to the plate to underwrite this series of five virtual expert panel discussions over the course of the next five or six weeks. Each will have a different theme and the series will feature a wide range of experts in our field. This is the fourth of five. We extend our deepest gratitude to InvestingChannel for making this valuable series possible.


Gramercy Institute welcomes your feedback as well as your suggestions for future topics.




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WREAKS: First question goes to you, Meghan. As you consider the first set of survey results, do these numbers surprise you? Are you surprised that such a high percentage of financial marketers (73.3%) report that a majority of their outbound messaging in recent weeks has been “Crisis-Related”? Or, does this make sense to you?

MCCARTHY: These results do not surprise me at all. When the crisis happened, many clients became very reactive with their messaging, more so directly to their clients. Brands did not want to be perceived as they were taking advantage of a situation during these hard times. They needed to find empathy within messaging and ensure that what they were putting out into the market was more authentic messaging/content that could help consumers out during these times.  


WREAKS: Explain why you think financial marketers feel it is important to shift messaging to directly address the crisis? 


MCCARTHY: The reason for the shift in messaging habits is from what we learned back in 2008 from the financial fall out. From that time period, we saw that emotionally connected customers sustained their value during the financial crisis. These customers felt their financial institutions acted authentically and treated them with empathy, understanding, respect, and exceptional service. These customers were quicker to turn to their firms for additional products and balances as needs arose, which helped grow the recovery of these firms.  When customers were not emotionally connected to a brand, customers tended to churn faster and earlier than predicted by behavioral/financial models alone.  


WREAKS: Meghan, thanks. Kristie, how about you. Do these numbers surprise you? 


TILLINGHAST: No real surprise. I am with Meghan on this. That number doesn’t surprise me and I’m quite glad it doesn’t. In particular, in times when the world is so unsettling, strong brands need to continue their promotion strategies and not be tone deaf to what’s impacting everyone around them. There is a way to communicate your message that becomes ever more relevant, responsive and empathetic when we are all living through a health and economic crisis. And that’s just one part of it. The other part is the humanitarian component: what can brands do to actually contribute and do good in this crisis? There are—thankfully—hundreds of examples of how brands have pivoted recently—anything from shifting production lines and product output to donations and additional benefits for their employees to manage their own wellbeing in this new environment.

WREAKS: Thank you Kristie. Bob, what’s your thought here? Any surprise in these results?


VERRICO: These numbers make sense to me too.


WREAKS: Tell me why.


VERRICO: I believe that financial marketers have shifted to crisis-specific messaging for two reasons. First, I understand why a majority of messaging is being related to the crisis as marketers realize that we need to be sensitive to the situation we are experiencing. Most of the other choices offered in the survey are inward to the company. So, I am not surprised that most marketers are not self-promoting at this time.

WREAKS: Can you go a little deeper with this, Bob? At the end of the day, it’s good business to be sensitive, then. Right?


VERRICO: Sure. I agree with Kristie and Meghan on this. Not only are companies being sensitive to their communications but it is fantastic to see the shifts in production. It is great to see that financial  brands are doing good both inwardly, to their communities, as well as to their customers. Bill, this is best-practice content marketing at work! It is so important for marketers to make a real, sincere connection with people through their communications and messaging. It is sound practice that messaging assures them that they understand the situation, potential impacts to people’s lives, financial/personal health, short/mid/long-term impact to them and the world. Inward messaging would not accomplish that, so shifting messaging and addressing the crisis or maybe messaging that is sensitive to the crisis is the right option.

WREAKS: Bob, thank you. And you mentioned earlier that there was also a second reason that you see for this shift.


VERRICO: Of course. Secondly, this industry move to crisis-related messaging is significant because it signals a true awareness by the financial services industry that (unlike how things were during other past crises) financial services is being looked up to as a solution—not down to as a source of the problem. To the contrary, financial services is being looked at by the world as “the way out.” This said, not only is it OK for us to talk about the crisis in our outbound messaging, it is also a real and transparent way for financial services marketers to demonstrate both empathy and leadership during this difficult time.


I believe that people look to the financial and health sectors for expert guidance during times of crisis, particularly this type. There is a large responsibility for all of us in these two sectors to do the right thing and look outward, which I see us doing quite well. 


WREAKS: Bob, thank you. OK, panel, please take a look at the next question responses. Here is a rank order of potential financial message attributes that, historically, financial marketers have used to connect with customers. You will notice that “It’s More Safe/Secure” was deemed by financial marketers to be the MOST appropriate promotional attribute (by a fairly wide margin)? So, the question is, why do you think that “It's More Safe/Secure” scored so high as a promotional attribute today?  


MCCARTHY: Bill, I’ll go first here. 


WREAKS: Please do.


MCCARTHY: When we have been looking at trends across all different industries (financial included), one thing that has stood out is a humanity first type of message/tone. It’s human to be anxious right now as none of us have experienced anything quite like this in our lifetimes. Consumers right now are looking for three main things: 


  • First, consumers want a sense of belonging. During scary/riskier times, people tend to unite to a community in which they can gain advice, ask questions, have a trustworthy and dependable source, and ensure they are not alone with their thoughts. 

  • Second, consumers want to create safety by removing risk. They have enough to worry about with their job, family, health, etc. They do not want to have to worry about anything related to their financial institutions or products. They want to create a safety net in this world to have this be alleviated from their minds here. Therefore I think the “It's More Safe/Secure” message ties in strong here.  

  • Third, consumers want a feeling of both emotional and physical safety. Consumers want to have a sense of being calm, being hopeful, and being secure during this time.


This all said, when looking at the current state it is not completely surprising that the majority of financial marketers have scored “It’s More Secure/Safe” as their main message attribute. Just like what consumers are looking for today during this pandemic; we have learned over time that anything relating to money has been a mechanism that has allowed consumers to meet all of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Consumers crave security and safety on financial matters, as this tends to cause higher stress levels.  


WREAKS: Thank you, Meghan. Kristie, do you agree with Meghan? Or are you surprised by how financial marketers responded to this message attribute ranking?


TILLINGHAST: My take is a little bit different from Meghan’s. To answer your question, Bill, that ranking actually *does* surprise me. I assume the intent is for financial brands to deliver a message that provides a sense of normalcy and control. Consumers are definitely feeling anxious now, so brands are tweaking their efforts to become more humble, practical and relatable in these turbulent times. But let’s not forget it goes well beyond messaging. It’s also in how flexible firms can be to better service their clients, given the current restrictions in place. Companies that are better positioned with technology and communications that continue to add value for clients will more than likely leave a positive and genuine impression on them, which will ultimately help to benefit their brand reputation and perception.


WREAKS: So, Kristie, your point is that it’s important for financial brands to be sensitive in these times, but financial customers still have needs and still crave value.


TILLINGHAST: Yes. So I am simply surprised that the ranking you’ve shared is so definitively pointing to “It’s More Secure/Safe.”


WREAKS: How about you, Bob? Where are your feelings on this ranking of potential product attributes by financial marketers?


VERRICO: This is in line with my first answer, Bill, as your question relates to “sensitive versus self-promoting” messaging. Given the choices on the list, the ranking seems appropriate and, of course, we must be aware of the market needs. Still, it is important to remember that we are not living in a “one size fits all” environment. We never are—but particularly now. Financial customer needs are not all the same and their differences span geographic, demographic and product need circumstances. So it is important that we bear this in mind as we assess this ranking. 


WREAKS: Bob, expand on this a little if you would. Put this sentiment into context of messaging attributes.


VERRICO: If this pandemic has taught us anything, Bill, it has taught us that various groups of people will differ, based on where they live, work and congregate. Likewise, their financial needs will differ. And, correspondingly, the best way to market financial services (or to convey brand value) will differ among various groups. For example, a person in dense urban areas like New York City or Chicago might relate to different attribute messaging and have different priorities, such as safety, security and health. This person may have different priorities than someone in Colorado or Texas, for example, an area with less density and less unavoidable interaction. Those with varying health issues or of different ages or at different life stages or of different economic levels will each require different financial and insurance products, guidance, support and education. And, they would likely require very different positioning now. This is true for estate planning, investment vehicles, investment horizons, motivation, etc. Each requires different messaging to be real and relevant to specific audiences. Data once again becomes important to understand audiences and the right message. This is best practice content marketing at work.


WREAKS: Thank you, Bob. If I may now ask the panel to, again, consider that same second set of survey results—the ranking of potential message attributes. Does the overall rank order of these financial “attributes” make sense to you? Is there anything about the order of this list that surprises you? Why?


VERRICO: Well, for starters, I am happy “It Offers Prestige” is dead last—and had zero votes!  


WREAKS: Yes, I was relieved to see that financial marketers have enough faith in financial audiences to entirely back off from use of this message attribute during these sensitive times. 


VERRICO: All kidding aside, I do think that the overwhelming and unanimous rejection of “It Offers Prestige” does clarify the sentiment among marketers that this is no time for trivial messaging. This pandemic is real. Financial marketers know it because their financial customers know it. 


WREAKS: Yes, Bob. Agreed. It is rare to get this level of consensus from a group of 141 financial marketers, representing a wide range of products and product categories. Not one marketer felt that this message attribute was the MOST appropriate and 80% agreed that it is the LEAST appropriate. That serves as a sign post to us all. Meghan, what’s your take. What else does this ranking tell us? 


MCCARTHY: Yes, as I mentioned before, the overall rank order does make sense to me, based on the three things consumers are wanting right now. The second most effective attribute in the ranking is “It Offers More Sound Advice”.


WREAKS: Yes, with 42% of marketers selecting this option. 


MCCARTHY: Yes, exactly. This attribute ties into the sense that, intrinsically, people share a sense of belonging. They want to be able to turn to brands that they have trusted to obtain this advice. 


WREAKS: So, the brand and branding does matter? 


MCCARTHY: Yes. I would certainly say so. Also, with the third attribute being “It Saves More Money,” marketers are looking to create that safety that financial consumers are craving by removing some of the risk. Consumers want to cut costs and save during this time of uncertainty.  


WREAKS: Yes. I agree.


MCCARTHY: As you continue down the list, you can fit each of these attributes into each category. To Bob’s earlier point, it isn’t surprising that no one scored “Prestige” high as this kind of message would be perceived to be tone-deaf during these times. With regard to the overall order of the list, it does not necessarily surprise me on each of the rankings.


WREAKS: Are there any suggestions for Gramercy Institute as we continue to survey financial marketers on this overarching subject in the future? 


MCCARTHY: Yes, I think it would be interesting to evaluate  survey participants, on which financial niche they are marketing toward. I do think that some of these attributes might have different order rankings based on which financial niche, you are marketing in. For example, if you are marketing toward a foreign exchange brokerage account, that order might be different compared to an Institutional Investor within equities.  


WREAKS: That’s a good point and a good suggestion, Meghan. Thank you. Kristie, how about you? Any additional thoughts or suggestions about the overall ranking of messaging attributes?


TILLINGHAST: Thanks, Bill. I think now is the time—more than ever—for the marketers of financial products and services to think differently about these products and offerings. So I might suggest a different, or alternate, list of attributes. It’s less about being opportunistic and more about being genuine, caring and responsive.


WREAKS: Kristie, thank you for that. Bob, how about you? Any additional thoughts about the overall rankings?


VERRICO: Bill, for me, as I look at these product attributes in rank order, I see two distinct camps emerge.  The top three (“It’s More Secure/Safe,” “It Offers More Sound Advice,” and “It Saves More Money” are what I will call more “value centric” in what they describe. The second grouping  (bottom half of the ranked list) are more product or company focused. Those ranked higher are intended for those dealing with certain “value” issues and the guidance they require. The others are more focused on the product and the brand.


WREAKS: So what does this tell us?


VERRICO: It tells us that, at the end of the day, the value that financial consumers extract from financial product is what really matters. Yes, the circumstances may change. What they value—or the order in which they value them—might change, but what really matters to financial audiences is value.


WREAKS: Bob, thank you for that. Makes total sense. Panel, I wish to thank you all for this enlightening analysis of messaging and tonality today in financial marketing. These are most unusual times and making sense of how to address financial customers and the industry at large is not a science. It is an art. There is no text book that can tell us exactly how to do this right. Rather, the only way for us all to get a better understanding of the most effective messaging today is by talking it through—with experts such as yourselves. That we have done. And I thank you all.

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