Financial services change tack on women

Companies tailoring ad campaigns, products to age, income, occupation

Dollars & Sense

July 21, 2002|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Banks, brokerages and insurers have coveted women in recent years for their financial influence and decision-making responsibilities. But the male-dominated financial-services industry has repeatedly stumbled in its attempts to connect with women.

Now, though, a growing number of companies are rolling out marketing campaigns aimed at women with different needs - as business owners, minority members, "generation X-ers" and females undergoing transitions such as divorce or widowhood.

"One thing that's clear to us is it's no longer one-size-fits-all," said Rob Densen, a spokesman for Oppenheimer Funds, whose 1992 survey of female investors is credited with arousing the industry's interest in women as customers. "Women are no longer a gender; they're individuals."

One of the more eye-catching examples is Citigroup's recent ad campaign for its Women & Co. service.

Anchoring the wedding pages of The New York Times, the 2-month-old ads feature stories of fictitious women at various stages of life: a recently divorced author of children's books seeking an affordable new mortgage, a single New Yorker trying to save money despite a penchant for Italian shoes and designer wrap dresses, a casserole-cooking mother hoping to someday afford Ivy League tuition for her daughter.

It's a far cry from the less subtle credit-card promotion from Capital One Bank that woos female applicants with $10 in body lotions.

"When it's that obvious, women feel stalked, not wooed," said Martha Barletta, a marketing consultant who heads TrendSight Group in Chicago.

The industry recently has tailored services, educational initiatives and even ambience to appeal to women:

Last October, Citigroup rolled out Women & Co., a membership service aimed at women younger than 55 who have $100,000 in investable assets. For a $125 annual fee, customers can link up with a Citibank or Salomon Smith Barney broker, phone for financial-planning advice as the need arises and receive discounts on mortgages and other products.

In June, Wells Fargo Bank earmarked an extra $5 billion for its Women's Loan Program, up from $10 billion previously. Promoting its program by sponsoring events for the National Association for Women Business Owners, the bank has lent $11.6 billion since starting the program in 1995 - far exceeding its original goal of lending $1 billion in three years.

Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc., the nation's biggest brokerage, set up a multicultural and diversified business development group this year to target women and ethnic investors. The focus is on forums where female investors can learn and network. In June, the brokerage sponsored a "Business Woman of the Year" dinner with the IndUS Entrepreneurs in Boston.

Charles Schwab & Co. is promoting Women Investing Now (WIN), a nearly 2-year-old educational initiative that features classes taught by women. Although the investment-oriented lessons tend to be gender-neutral, the classes offer a friendly atmosphere and deal with some issues that are particularly relevant to women, including financial challenges after a divorce or a spouse's death.

"Men and women need the same investments and investment strategy. Both need to participate," said Carrie Schwab Pomerantz, who founded WIN and is president of the Charles Schwab Corp. Foundation. "It's how we approach women and make them feel comfortable with doing business with us as a firm. Our industry has historically been an old-boys network, and our focus has been on men."

Still, some companies draw fire for their old-style focus on women's supposed shortcomings and for harping on the scary prospects unprepared women face when they divorce, are widowed or don't save enough to last a woman's longer life span.

"There's still an undertone that women are not as good at investing as men, when my research has shown the exact opposite - that if you educate women and increase their level of self-esteem and confidence, they can be as good or better than men," said Christopher L. Hayes, founder of the National Center for Women and Retirement Research at Long Island (N.Y.) University.

Harriet Chan, a 49-year-old retiree in Vallejo, Calif., who started investing in 1979, recalls the time she attended a free lunchtime seminar and an assertive female broker tried to sell her a bond tied to Japan's Nikkei index. But for Chan to pocket the 9 percent return the broker projected, Chan figured the Nikkei would need to grow 20 percent in spite of Japan's recession.

"`What do you know that I don't know?'" Chan asked her. "When she couldn't answer the question, I realized she was just a salesperson."

The problem is many companies have been unable to overhaul cold-calling cultures that are geared to ring up sales, not build time-consuming relationships with women. Indeed, a recent Oppenheimer Funds survey indicates 54 percent of women believe that stockbrokers and financial advisers treat women with less respect than men.

"The ideal client for a brokerage is somebody who gets a lump sum and says, `Don't bother me with the details,' " said Ginita Wall, who heads the Women's Institute for Financial Education in San Diego. "That's the old style of women with money. ... There aren't enough airhead heiresses out there to satisfy them."

Today, women aren't just inheriting money, they're earning it themselves, said Wall, who often lectures brokers about how to connect with women. Although some women may be content to let an adviser take total control, many want to learn how things work and insist on being intimately involved.

"It's hard to sell to women," Wall said. "What I hear from brokers is, `Women ask too damn many questions.' "

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