Messaging, Products & Mission Impossible

An evening of impromptu after work drinks with a collage of male colleagues offered an odd insight into what’s wrong with banking products, product marketing, and sexism. True story.

My colleagues give me a lot of good-natured ribbing about being the raging feminist of the team, nay, company. Sometimes I sense an undercurrent of discomfort and dismissivness from some, from others their actions speak louder than the ribbing and I know without a shadow of a doubt they’re proper Manbassadors through and through.

This drinks session was with my Zafin Manbassadors, all of whom I work with closely on a daily basis, they’re my team, they’re my allies, they’re stand up guys who I respect. And yet sometimes how they talk leaves me shaking my head, and they up front admit they’re digging themselves into a hole they’re not sure anyone is going to help them get out of — which is where the crux of this narrative lies.

Not even halfway into the first round, we’d fallen into the work-talk trap, of which there is no way out. We started talking about product management lifecycle, and the challenges many banks have in matching the right products to customers based on lifestyle or life events — that’s well beyond just what market niche the customer happens to occupy or the geography and possible competitive offerings in that market.

My biggest advocate at Zafin, the man who advocates for me internally and is beyond supportive of my external (Femtech) passion, dropped the Barbie Bank casually into conversation — that the industry has been lazy enough to go the way of the rest of the world to slap pink on a product and call it ‘For the Ladies’.

Another chap piped up with the story of Butterfield Bank (now no longer operating its deposit and investment activities in the UK) which actually set up a product bundle for women based on a particular life event: divorce. The product description is no longer found online, for those interested, but it basically comes down to this: the bank will grant a ‘matrimonial dispute loan’ on the condition that the divorce settlement is turned over to the bank as an investment to manage. HSBC Private Bank and Coutts also offer something in that same vein. I’d say that’s more of a red product than a pink one, since the whole point is to bleed someone dry during divorce proceedings. And yes, it was marketed primarily to women, and yes, given the sentiments of that last sentence, it’s a nice reinforcement of a sexist stereotype.

We joked, we chuckled at the notion that pink products (which are known to have a higher cost than those marketed to men despite being the same damned product) are any way to address a population that has deep pockets and a lot of disposable income. And then we started talking about messaging, and how to sell products to a market. That, of course, led to the language lexicon we use to convey those messages.

I’m not ‘one of the guys’ with these men, they don’t treat me like that at all — they include me, but we’re all aware that I’m fundamentally different. They recognize that I walk through the world with a different set of concerns than they do — they get it all the more since some of them have daughters or had care-taken mothers, sisters, extended female family members. They understood, albeit through a different lens, that safety is a different priority for women — the expression of concern than I’d be safe on my late night journey walking home are signs that they at least get this aspect of difference. We actually talked about clothes and the lack of pockets on women’s clothing, and how inconvenient that can be, and what odd work-arounds women find when they want to carry only a phone, wallet, and keys but not a purse.

But I digress, because the point I want to make is that we ended up talking about language and the deep-rooted double standard society has around labels, adjectives, descriptions: that what word qualifies as a positive leadership trait in men has a completely different, negative, connotation when applied to a woman.

What was fascinating was how the conversation started unconsciously: I watched a group of men acknowledge that there’s a double standard around language while they, in real time, would occasionally toss around pejorative terms (“ball buster” was the first one) to describe women. And I watched as that confused, guilty look crossed their faces at the same time those words left their mouths. I witnessed a genuine light bulb moment for a couple of them, and although I suspect they were worried I’d blow a gasket, I couldn’t help but laugh. I mean I laughed at them, not with them, so that’s probably as awkward for them had my gaskets blown, but I digress.

That was the starting point in our discussion about banking products, bad messaging, and the pink tax.

And here’s where sexism, ageism, racism, orientationism intersect with product management: the language we use to sell these products is laden with connotation that is limited, stereotypical, and less than relatable to those to whom these products are marketed. It’s the lazy ‘pink products’ approach. And it’s antithetical to customer centricity.

Banks should — and they can, with the right systems in place — systematically revamp their product management lifecycle to include marketing messages for each product that are relevant to the market segment, life stage, age, gender, circumstance their customers have. And banks can convey the utility, best offer, best fit, most practical and economical service based on those unique customer needs — especially via digital channels with a self-service portal. Sure, data analytics could inform some of those circumstances, but what if a bank offered up a chance to let the customer tell the bank about themselves, in a judgment free zone, that offered in return for that information a truly customized product bundle? What if a bank said, yes, the base product is the same, but this is how it serves you, valued customer, right now. Oh, and by the way, valued customer, when you let us know things change in your life, we’ll help you reevaluate that product bundle to ensure we get you the right fit.

But right now, we don’t talk about products that way. How we talk about products to women, millennials (and Gen Z), retirees, minorities, LGBTQ, immigrants, anyone that doesn’t fit the binary mold of single or married (um, how many of us are divorced, common law married, or cohabiting who would benefit from understanding the nuances of a joint account option?) is skewed. Really they’re using the same base product, but we have the messaging wrong, we’re leaving them with the wrong interpretation. We’re dismissively applying a sort of token ‘pink product’ to certain of our customers.

Banking suffers from the same lexicon problem: how we talk about characteristics of women leaders but translate them through a language filter that makes those characteristics negative. We’re ignoring the messaging, we’re ignoring the filter, we’re ignoring our audience — and we’re continuing to perpetuate the problem by not acknowledging that everyone wants financial security, prosperity and flexibility. We are filtering how we talk about financial products to different segments through a very biased lens.

We can change that.

We can change how we manage product messaging, just like we can change how we distort language to carry a double standard for people who aren’t exactly like us. And the first step in making that change is acknowledging we have a problem. The second is to communicate the need to change. Let’s agree, if you’re still reading, that the message is out there now, so we can proceed to step three.

So, dear banking industry, your mission, should you choose to accept it is to develop a change plan. Don’t worry; this is not an impossible mission. It’s an adventure that can start with something as fun as an impromptu round of drinks with trusted colleagues who want to make this industry better. In fact, that’s a great way to kick off this mission. So…who’s getting this round?

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