Last month, I offered my advice to financial services marketers to “get real” and I supported my thinking with research about how consumers perceive many of our marketing campaigns. This month, I’m telling you to “get a life,” and once again, I can back up the punchy headline with research that may change how you think about the business we are in.

When I say “get a life,” I’m not suggesting you have a less-than-exciting personal situation (though that may be true). I am talking about how we need to “get” what people are really thinking, and our business is about life, not money – it’s financial life management.

If you are cynical, you’re thinking this is just another marketing concept, so let me share the science behind the subject. Last year, we began a multiyear investment in consumer research, partnering with Barnaby Riedel, Ph.D., and co-founder of Riedel Strategy. We wanted to gain a deep understanding of what people would really value from financial advisers, starting with a clean slate. Rather than a biased “check the box” research study, the approach we used was based on narrative psychology, applying the life-story model of human identity developed by  Dan McAdams, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University. 

In our study, 30 affluent individuals and couples were asked to describe their financial life story in chapters with critical events identified as high points, low points and turning points. The sample included our firm’s clients and an equal number of randomly selected participants, geographically distributed. All had at least $500,000 in investable assets, and two had more than $10 million. Over 40 hours of interviews were recorded, and then the content was analyzed and codified to identify specific mentions, structural elements and themes that could be measured and interpreted.

One of our goals was to use the stories and data collected to test the assumptions our industry makes about people. Financial planning is based on models like life stages (accumulation, preservation and distribution) and standards about the “right” way to build a strong financial future. We encourage people to save and invest. We build plans to asset allocate, diversify, minimize taxes, insure against risks, create a legacy and so on. When we build marketing materials or meet with our clients, these are the topics we cover.

What we learned is that what really matters to clients, the meaningful aspects of money in their lives, is largely absent in the standard planning experience. Here are four conclusions from the study that might surprise you:

  1. A financial life story isn’t about money, it’s about life. Ninety-three percent of the participants felt the need to share their whole life story, the big picture. Some of the interviews went on well past the time slotted, and participants thanked us for listening. These people didn’t separate money from life, yet most financial plans have a lot of pie charts and graphs with numbers on them and very little of the person’s real story is reflected.
  2. Working and spending are more important topics than saving and investing. Only 7 percent of the chapters described investing as a meaningful life experience, and only 10 percent talked about saving. Working and earning money filled 53 percent of the chapters, and spending was the theme in 30 percent of the stories told. As an industry, we don’t help with career choices, but maybe we should. While we often address budgets, what about helping people spend well? If they earn what they need and spend well (not too much or too little, and on the things that matter), they’ll end up in a position to save and invest – and be happier!
  3. Life is a series of trade-offs and more of one thing usually means less of another. Eighty-three percent of the major turning points in people’s lives involved tough choices. We think of choices as risk/return, or we ask, “When will you retire? ”People think of choices as the debate between public and private schools, a single income or a two career lifestyle, or weighing home prices versus commute times. Providing tools and guidance for these types of choices is a major opportunity where advisers can help.
  4. People have an idea of the life they want and their “ideal self.” People want to be proud of the life they have led. Rather than judge decisions based on the monetary impact, they were aware of when a choice brought them closer to what’s right for them, or further away. It would be very interesting to ask clients to rate how they feel they are doing against their life goals, and then see how you can help them get closer to the happiness they deserve. Another way of framing the planning experience around life, not a number.

I was at a conference recently where one of the speakers said we need to, “teach people more about why saving and investing are so critical.” I understand the good intentions, but I disagree with that approach. Good marketers know it is easier to engage people by tapping into what is already important to them, not changing their interests. 

Pay attention to the research. When you are a financial life manager, you show that you really do “get” your clients’ lives and care about how money serves them, not the other way around.   

Gail Graham is chief marketing officer at United Capital, an innovative and fast-growing financial life management firm. Having earned awards in retail investor and advisor marketing, Gail is driving United Capital’s brand development, marketing and lead generation across all channels. Follow her on Twitter: @GailGrahamUC.