“Financial services companies have horrible evaluations” of what Americans want, Frank Luntz told the Milken Conference crowd.

Quick: Which image captures the life of perfection the average American is seeking?

The well-heeled couple clinking champagne glasses on their private yacht, with the wife’s finger sporting an Elizabeth Taylor-style rock?

Or an older couple holding hands, with no visible jewelry, and both wearing jeans they could have bought at K-Mart?

Financial advisors are probably apt to choose the former, but “financial services companies get it wrong,” said Frank Luntz, best known as a political pollster but whose Luntz Global provides language consulting for corporate clients.

Luntz spoke at a session on Tuesday at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Los Angeles on “The Words to Use and the Words to Lose,” which touched on both words and images his testing finds effective. Luntz, the wily wordsmith and famed focus group master, commented that the downhome image selected by his test population represents the freedom Americans are seeking.

The second couple’s handholding represents the simple companionship Americans crave, while the imagery laden with material things like champagne, yachts and jewelry hint at the burdens of financial pressure.

“Financial services companies and corporations in general have horrible evaluations,” Luntz told the overwhelmingly financial crowd, including asset managers and wealth managers.

Images that work in today’s marketplace show relationships and interactivity, but financial services firms still show cubicles and people sitting behind screens.

The pollster had more to say about effective images, as well as words.

But it is worth noting at the outset that the top phrases he rates as having impact in 2015—Luntz says his words and phrases lose impact after they become commonly adopted, which generally takes two years—all pertain quite specifically to the business of financial advice.

Luntz’s top phrase for the new year:

“You work hard for your money. We’ll work hard to protect it.” Luntz says a strength of this phrase is that it personalizes relations with the client.

Coming in second in his polling:

A more efficient, more effective approach.”

A third top business phrase, which he says would be equally effective for government:

“Business practices that are transparent, accountable and open.”

Fourth:

“Making sure you’re protected and prepared.”

That last one touches on a key concern of financial advisors with a retirement-focused clientele. Luntz surveyed people on what kind of retirement they wanted.

Overwhelmingly, Americans want a secure retirement—more than “happy,” “worry-free” and other alternatives.

Business communicators in general have trouble capturing what Americans aspire to. Retail staffs are taught to say “how can I help you?” which has come to seem inauthentic in a retail environment.

A better approach: Luntz tells of the sports autograph and memorabilia store Field of Dreams, whose staff asks customers “Who’s your favorite athlete?” When the clerk responds to the customer’s answer by walking him over to some Michael Jordan paraphernalia, it touches on that customer’s feelings for his hero.

“The single biggest problem in corporate America [is] distance from customer,” Luntz says.

Luntz himself is so determined to get close to his audience that he has been known to fall off the stage on several occasions, he admits.

But bridging the gap requires first knowing your target audience.

Financial services companies, for example, should know that men are looking for money, while women are looking for time.

“Men love their families but when they judge their success they’re more likely to choose things that relate to their careers while women are more likely to choose things that relate to their families,” he said.

An image of a boy and a puppy will attract professional moms—“even if it’s selling hemorrhoidal cream,” he quipped.

The image-meister also stressed the imperative that customers “have to think they could see themselves in that situation.” To that end, age is very important. “A 25-year-old looking at a picture of a 50-year-old says ‘that’s my parent.’ That doesn’t work,” he advised.

The best marketing colors are, first, yellow—which conveys a comforting sense of warmth, then green, then blue.

“Black and white scares people…it’s about the past, it’s anxiety” though some companies—mistakenly in his judgment—regard the combination as elegant.

One image that is especially powerful today but rarely attempted is celebration:

“In the financial community it never happens; the financial world does the least amount of celebrating,” Luntz says.

Also, some things should be said, other things demonstrated. For example, one shows compassion: an image of a nurse clasping a patient’s hands does this more effectively than a physician in a lab coat and a sterile environment.

But in the realm of words, for which he is particularly well known, here are some of Luntz’s current favorites. Words that tested well two years ago, like “certified,” no longer have quite the same impact.

“Exceptional,” “extraordinary,” “excellence” all tested well—“they are not overused or hackneyed,” he says. “Forward thinking,” “innovative,” “visionary,” and “creative” are also impactful.

In contrast, “groundbreaking” is an example of a word to lose.

Other words recommended as carrying business currency in our times, according to Luntz:

“A lifetime of;” “the cost of everyday life;” “no excuses;” “real/genuine/authentic;” “setting priorities;” “our mission/commitment;” and “the simple truth.”

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