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The end of traditional financial institutions as we know them: how Gen-Z is shaping the future of financial comms 

By Kimberley Howard, Semiotician and Trends Expert at Verve 

Traditionally, financial institutions embrace the concept of ‘security’ in their advertising and communications. However, ‘security’ is subjective and deeply personal to consumers, particularly when generational differences come to light – and good financial decisions go way beyond traditional milestones such as having a mortgage or starting a family. 

Kimberley Howard, Culture and Semiotics expert at international insight agency Verve, analyses a range of brands semiotically to decode how they are considering the set of new challenges young people face, ultimately informing how ‘security’ is approached in their communications. Here, she explores two key codes that are markers of security for newer generations – childish simplicity and brutal honesty. 

Childish simplicity

Gen-Z are finding alternative ways to structure their finances. What worked for their parents won’t work for them, therefore they are looking for brands that understand their wants and needs

Tapping into the promise of ease and having a nicer time as a security manifestation, finance disruptors are taking a more aesthetic approach to their branding. They promise simplicity and an overall ‘nice’ experience when using the brand.

Habito use design codes associated with youth culture. Their website takes a synthwave aesthetic with neon pastel tones. We’re presented with a utopian world where we can focus on relaxation and enjoyment, rather than admin or traditional milestones. 

In advertising, both Cuvva and Habito use cartoons to tell their stories. Cartoons are traditionally associated with children, and therefore naturally juxtapose the very serious world of banking. In Habito’s ads, mainstream banks are personified as zombie hands – crawling for us and stealing our time and money. They’re the ‘bad guys’, while Habito is a ‘good guy’. 

There are no depictions of warm homes and cosy hugs, but instead images of individual freedom. The Cuvva ad depicts a lady driving freely with sunglasses on – a very literal symbol of enjoying life without restraint.

This representation of security reveals cultural shifts for the younger generation. Rising anxiety levels are a big source of insecurity for this generation. Admin, major life decisions – they all add to these fears. Big commitments don’t necessarily equal security. Here, security is simply about living nicer, stress-free lives.

Brutal honesty

In contrast to the serious, emotional narratives of the big banks, new players are delivering a sense of ‘security’ via humour and satire, sharing a brutally honest outlook on life. Whilst this may seem counter-intuitive to security, it’s the cut-through honesty that’s exactly what consumers find reassuring.

For example, Dead Happy talk about death in a hilariously matter-of-fact way, to remove the heavy emotion associated with taking out life insurance. Security is therefore manifesting in staying emotionally ‘down-to-earth’; seeing the reality of the situation rather than a potential hyperbolic ‘what-if?’ future.

From the upside down ‘A’ in their logo; suggesting we’re lying face-down dead, through to their morbid iconography (skulls, ‘X’s, ransom-note-style text) – it’s an honest reminder why we’re on their website. Because we’re going to die one day.

Brands like Tom use a similar approach. They use simple language their customers use, to place them on our level: ‘a quick chinwag with one of our FCA-vetted insurance partners and you’re golden’. There’s acknowledgement and appreciation that here we’re seeing the ‘truth of it’. This can also be viewed as ‘down-to-earth-ness’ – a trait symbolic of authenticity, and deeply respected in British culture.

This analysis suggests several considerations for brands: 

  • How we spend our money is deeply personal. Financial brands sell us aspirational lifestyles; but what’s desirable is changing. ‘Security’ for many consumers today isn’t necessarily getting married or having children – it’s simply about feeling less anxious and not having to deal with so much admin. 
  • The future of finance will need to address how to help young people deal with significantly less, due to escalating cost of living. Long-term planning is becoming physically less reliable and emotionally less desirable as Gen-Z turn to tech brands such as Klarna, who understand emerging new needs.
  • Navigating difficult subjects like death can be hard for consumers. Emergent brands are taking a brutally honest approach. Consider research on your target audience to understand how they think about subjects like ‘death’; it might not be as straightforward as you think.

Ultimately, providers who understand emerging new needs and generational aspirations, will be the ones who remain relevant in this changing market. A 360 approach to insight is required, to understand not just what customers say they want but to contextualize this within the changing nature of financial communications. This gives a true picture of consumer behaviour, helping brands make smart and informed decisions.

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