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The death of a sailboat: “down to earth-ing” retirement

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It’s official. Not everyone assumes that age 65 will mean fishing, gorgeous sunsets, a thick, perfectly tousled head of platinum hair and a spouse who has aged equally well.

If true, then why do we consistently (and relentlessly) paint this picture of the ideal in our communications to consumers? Is it realistic that everyone can actually achieve that? Is it realistic that everyone would actually want that? Is it realistic that people aren’t going to work full time after age 65?

The recent study released by LIMRA and Maddock Douglas around the language of our industry suggests that consumers are looking for us to be more authentic…more “real.” Authenticity leads to greater trust, particularly when you consider that today’s self-directed consumers are forming impressions of your company before they speak to an advisor.

One of the six components of authentic communication is about being “down to earth.” People are looking for images that are realistic and attainable.

When we asked consumers to describe how they felt about the images our industry portrays, they said things like:

  • “People just look too damn happy and healthy.”
  • “In order to plan for your own retirement, you have to be in a certain economic class…they promise we can have this lifestyle once we retire, and I don’t think that’s realistic.”
  • “It would be nice if everyone didn’t look like they were living in a spa their whole lives.”

In fact, only 13 to 15 percent of consumers associate the phrase “retirement investments” with vacations and relaxing. More than 60 percent associate these words with simply having enough money. There’s a big difference between living a life of leisure and just, well, living.

So it’s time for us to rethink the image of retirement as we create communications that face the consumer, because the study shows that the current impression is right smack in the middle of “down to earth” and “downright impractical.”

So how do we change? A starting point would be to get some inspiration from outside the industry.

One of the hardest ideals to move in our society is the image of female beauty. Even though, intellectually, most people understand that being a 5′ 11″, size 0 model with doe eyes, high cheekbones and perfect skin is pretty unrealistic, we haven’t been able to shake that mold completely.

Dove is one of my favorite inspirations in that regard. Their campaign for “Real Beauty” was intended to take the anxiety out of beauty for women, perhaps even enabling younger women to reject the previous, unrealistic societal norm. This campaign, rooted in psychological studies, is now 10 years old. It has sparked a great deal of attention, acclaim and controversy around the very issue of authenticity being discussed here.

The campaign’s use of real women, with real bodies, real faces and real lives is a creative commitment to a brand belief that may be even more emotionally charged than one’s finances. Regardless of its merits, there is something to be learned as we attempt to portray realistic expectations of the future in our communications.

The campaign is more than advertising. It’s a fascinating platform for consumer engagement that includes events, dialogues, self-esteem tool kits, inspirational videos and new insights that lead to new products. It is, quite frankly, innovation.

A second and more important starting point is to gain greater insight about how people define “retirement.” We have found evidence that younger consumers don’t find the word retirement relevant to them, and more likely see the future as a continual redefinition of their careers. The deep understanding of the future consumers’ views on this subject, as defined by them, not us, is critical.

However, if we examine the attitudes about the future from a starting point anchored by the past, it won’t yield us different results. That’s the definition of insanity. We must not only search for new answers, we must also search for new questions.

Is it time for someone to take the lead to gain that insight and create the campaign for “Real Future?” Hmmm. 


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