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Older People Respond, Like the Young, to Emotions

NEW YORK - Discovering that former Senator Bob Dole is the new spokesman for annuities was not the only new twist on an old story at this year's National Association for Variable Annuities annual meeting here.

The opportunities that aging Baby Boomers offer to financial service firms have been discussed at great length, yet little has ever been said about how to resonate with the older crowd.

In "Finding the Gold in Gray," one of the keynote speeches of the meeting, Michael P. Sullivan, a principal with 50+ Communications Consulting, spelled out facts about the aging of America and how best to speak to the older target demographic. Strategically placed family photographs and strategies that engage right-brain thinking were just two of the more unusual tactics Sullivan offered.

To consider Baby Boomers old is the first preconception annuity providers and salespeople must flout, Sullivan said. Older people do not want to be called "senior citizens," Sullivan said, even as the population continues to grow older. "Older people want to be viewed as active people. As many people age, they become interested in personal growth, revitalization, both spiritual and mental," he said. "Having experiences becomes important to us as we age."

Noting that age 50 is a mental barrier for many, an age when people begin to face the reality of their own mortality, Sullivan said that 250,000 Baby Boomers will turn 50 every month over the next 17 years.

"One of the things we want to do in this country is isolate older people," Sullivan said. This is not the kind of message a carrier, or their financial planning or brokerage partners, should give off to a potential and mutual funds customer, intentionally or subliminally, Sullivan said.

As obvious as it may seem for providers of annuities to be respectful of their elders, Sullivan reminded the insurance executives gathered at the NAVA meeting to treat these customers with utmost respect. And he gave many pointers on how to win their trust.

Perhaps the most interesting thesis Sullivan presented was, "As people mature, they become, like the young, more right brain," by which he meant focused on "feeling" and on "art."

He presented the concepts of fluid intelligence, which is characterized by book learning, and crystallized intelligence, which builds upon known experiences and cultural knowledge. As we age, "our ability to deal with abstract thought declines unless we associate it with something we already know," Sullivan explained.

"You need to design your communications, your marketing, advertising and collateral materials that way: focused on crystallized intelligence versus fluid intelligence," Sullivan said. For an industry selling products as complex as annuities, such an approach, indeed, is a novel one.

So how can an insurance carrier present a fully loaded annuity to an older client in a way that will resonate to them? Use "icons, allegories, metaphors, similes and analogies," Sullivan suggested. "Asset allocation is difficult to explain."

The principal of 50+ Communications then showed a number of advertisements he believed to embody these kinds of approaches, one notable one showing Lena Horne in workout clothes. Another standout showed an elderly woman working at McDonald's, mentoring rather awestruck young girls.

Aging Americans see themselves as autonomous and independent, and "your product design people really need to understand that," Sullivan said, explaining that older people maintain a strong desire to make their own choices.

As far as one-on-one interaction with seniors is concerned, Sullivan had many pointers there, too, many of which might not naturally occur to the professional financial planner or broker.

Besides better lighting in one's office and using bigger typeface and sentences of no more than eight or nine words, Sullivan reminded annuity providers and sellers to look directly at their older customers. Otherwise, they might not trust you, he said. Move slowly, he added. Otherwise, "they might think you're out of control," he said.

But to really develop a rapport with these investors, he said, financial planners should place a photograph of their grandchildren, if they have any, in their office.

"There is a special relationship between grandparents and grandkids. Grandparenting is powerful stuff," Sullivan said. "They have something in common: a common enemy," he added, drawing laughter from the audience.

In lieu of that, place a photograph of one's grandparents, perhaps upon their arrival in the United States or some other auspicious moment, Sullivan suggested. Inevitably, it will draw the client out with personal questions and discussion that can only cement the relationship, he said.

"Show them you are interested in something that is important to them," he said.

Finally, Sullivan asked the audience how many subscribe to Modern Maturity magazine, with nary a hand raised. Such periodicals are wonderful ways of learning about the interests, concerns and dreams of older people, he said.

In conclusion, Sullivan said that whether it's the younger or older generation, the manufacturer of a complex financial product or a dream vacation, "It's always been emotion that sells."