In the longest bull-run in stock market history, wealth asset managers were one of the few financial service categories that were highly valued by customers. With a cumulative return of over 450%, was it any surprise that customers loved these firms? The pandemic has the market 20% below its peak, a destruction in value of around $3 trillion. Will these brands remain loved? More importantly, what do they need to do to remain meaningful to audiences whose reality has materially changed?

What it takes to create meaning

Leveraging insights from 30,000 consumers spanning 500 brands in four countries, we’ve found that a brand needs to deliver both connection and progress in order to be truly meaningful. We call brands that do this Go-to Brands.

Today’s consumers are looking for a more personal connection with brands that champion their worldview and values. They create a sense of belonging and being truly cared for. USAA exemplifies strong connection through a focused brand proposition, but so does Charles Schwab while retaining mass appeal. Equally important is a brand’s ability to enable progress for customers, whether by solving a larger societal problem or making a smaller quest in daily life easier. Technology brands, such as Betterment and Venmo, are good examples of progress that are disrupting incumbents. In the financial sector, the most obvious progress customers want delivered is financial performance. However, to stay meaningful, brands need to deliver real progress even when investments don’t perform.

While it’s becoming harder and harder to become “Go-to,” the prize is bigger. Go-to brands are likely to see 5x more revenue growth than brands that fall short in delivering connection and progress.

During a crisis, preserving the meaning you have for customers is especially important. In fact, in Edelman’s COVID-19 Brand Trust report, 60 percent of respondents said that in this time they are turning more and more to the brands that they’re absolutely sure they can trust

How to stay meaningful

An uncertain world breeds anxiety as we worry about our health, our wealth and what the future may hold. Brands can act as beacons, offering safe harbor during these troubled times. For wealth asset managers, this translates into three tactics.

Connect with empathy

With bad news everywhere, it’s tempting to hunker down and hope for better times. Any conversation that acknowledges a 20 percent drop in wealth will be challenging, with customers looking for reassurance and certainty .

While, as wealth asset managers, the initial instinct would be to ride out the storm, Go-to Brands score high on connection by showing customers they care. There has never been a more important time to engage with customers in a human and empathetic way, encouraging continued action and offering reassurance. These aren’t just numbers, they are retirement security, future school fees, and investment in the next generation.

Bring humanity and empathy, not with a written, corporate statement but a heartfelt in-person video, as Vanguard has done. Find opportunities to connect customers with the people behind the brand. Make this a human story, not a technology or institutional one.

Help customers make positive progress

The most immediate challenge is to ensure that services remain easy to use and that they adapt to the new emotions and circumstances people are facing. Anxious people often want to talk to someone. As call volumes overwhelm even the most well-prepared call-centers, how can you tailor a more personal experience?

Live-chat facilitates one-to-many conversations, enabling more effective scale. Quickly segmenting your audience by life-stage and behavior allows brands to adapt conversations at scale all the while addressing distinct concerns. For example, what you message to a young wealth builder should be considerably different from a retiree whose daily income is dependent on today’s portfolio performance.

Behavioral psychology tells us that people are both loss averse and risk averse which becomes a strong motivator to sell, versus, often the optimal strategy of investing for future growth. Wealth managers need to recognize and proactively address this customer behavior.

Additionally, use this time as an opportunity to support the acceleration and expansion in the use of digital channels. Customers with positive digital experiences are unlikely to return to analog channels.

Play a societal role

Playing a societal role can’t be virtue signaling – it must be authentic to the brand. Charles Schwab’s founder has been a relentless advocate for financial literacy. Now, in a time of crisis, the brand has the authority to help those most at risk, not just customers, and any effort made during this time seems more authentic to its brand purpose.

Helping our communities isn’t just the right thing to do, it makes brands more meaningful in two ways. Firstly, we all want to feel part of something bigger than ourselves. Our ancestry drives us to form tribes. If ‘our’ brand does something noble, we feel pride through association. Secondly, goodwill is a precious commodity. All companies make mistakes, but it’s those with goodwill that are forgiven whether at the level of the individual or by legal, regulatory and political bodies. Financial services as a category often lacks goodwill, so the downturn offers an opportunity to trade off immediate bottom-line return for an enduring benefit.

Closing thoughts

Wealth asset managers are Go-to Brands for good reason. They’ve helped millions live more enjoyable lives through the services they offer. And, as Go-to Brands, those same customers are turning to them in time of need. Only some will reward that faith through the connection and progress that they continue to deliver despite falling markets.

Actions to consider immediately include:

  • Connect with your customers on their current circumstances using empathy and compassion. If you lack knowledge on their context, don’t be afraid to ask so that the conversation is tailored, not one-size-fits all
  • Enable progress by ensuring services remain accessible and that their association with your brand is part of doing good in the world
  • Use behavioral psychology to nudge desirable behaviors that will maximize returns beyond the short-term and demonstrate the value you bring

By staying meaningful, these enduring Go-to brands will reap the rewards when the markets bounce back.