Giving meaning
to your money

Frank Cooper III
Frank Cooper III- Global Chief
Marketing Officer of BlackRock

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Empathy is the key skill that financial-services companies need to learn, according to Global Chief Marketing Officer, Frank Cooper III. Here he tells Rosie Murray West about BlackRock’s mission to improve the financial wellbeing of its customers

Frank Cooper III wants you to feel good about your money. The Global Chief Marketing Officer of BlackRock is applying the lessons he’s learnt in a career spanning senior positions at BuzzFeed, PepsiCo and Motown Records to an industry that’s lacking consumer trust and engagement – and he believes there’s never been a better time.

“It might seem a break from where I was before,” he says of his decision to join the investment management corporation two-and-a-half years ago. “But I think this is one of the greatest moments to be in financial services. There is real change and the opportunity to affect people’s lives in a positive way.”

His new industry has a mountain to climb. Data from BlackRock’s Wealth Management Industry Survey of July-August 2018 reveals that money is making us unhappy – and that we don’t trust the companies that deal with it. Cooper says that trust won’t be rebuilt unless companies can learn to act in a way that’s consistent with their purpose and prove to society that they’re serious about improving everyone’s financial wellbeing, not just that of their shareholders.

“People feel that the large institutions are just there to replicate the current structure and to serve shareholders,” he says. “But now is the time when that is changing. Every business needs to demonstrate why it exists and what values it is serving. Anyone who wants to connect to culture needs a shift of mindset.”

BlackRock’s purpose, he says, is to “help more people to experience financial wellbeing”. Acting consistently with that purpose, he says, will drive profitability by driving trust.

As an example of how purpose can benefit profitability, he brings up CVS Pharmacies – the US drugstore chain that pulled tobacco from its shelves.

“They had made the proclamation that they were a healthcare company, but then someone called them out on that and said: how can you be when you sell cigarettes by the counter? The CEO replied that yes, cigarettes were inconsistent with the chain’s purpose and pulled them all. He said ‘that’s who we are’. They made up the gap in profits with other things that are consistent with their purpose,” Cooper says.

Acting from a place of purpose and hoping that profit will flow might seem scary, but the alternative is worse. “It’s a big thing, but just think about the cost of inaction! Those companies who resist will see an increasing mistrust – they are going to find it prohibitively expensive to try to pay to build a connection. This purpose is urgent for the entire industry; understanding how our purpose can drive profits and the impact of people’s relationship between money and a sense of wellbeing.”

Connecting with culture

BlackRock’s direct clients tend to be institutions, but Cooper’s new insight and analytics department is choosing to focus on the relationship of individuals with their money to help achieve BlackRock’s purpose.

“In the end, we all serve individuals,” Cooper says. “When we carry out research, we’re not focused on large investors, or even just ultra-high-net-worth Individuals. We’re looking at the full spectrum, and at how they are spending, donating and saving – as well as how they invest. It’s increasingly apparent that finance is connected to culture and that we need to understand groups of people in a different way.”

Evolving technology, including artificial intelligence, is helping Cooper’s analytics team to understand our reaction to money in new ways.

“Understanding how to leverage technology – not just collecting data, but using machine learning to parse that data – is the most significant thing in front of us,” he says. “We can use the data to find out how people group together and find correlations.”

By connecting with culture, he hopes the finance industry can improve the way it offers products to customers – focussing first on what they need, and not just what the industry has to sell.

“There is a skill that every company needs to learn, particularly in the financial services business, and that is the skill of empathy,” he says. “That has to be the starting point – looking through an empathetic lens on every opportunity in the marketplace.”

“Companies tend to ask: what do I have to sell? What can I build? What are we good at? But instead, why not turn that lens the other way and ask: What do people need? How can we serve them better?”

How can companies do this? Cooper says ditching outdated ideas about marketing to different demographics would be a good start.

“Age, ethnicity, geography,” the former Motown and Def Jam senior executive says. “Every experience I’ve had shows that these don’t matter at all when it comes to what binds us together. People are bound together by their shared values. That is the lens to look through – to understand how people are grouping together.”

Breaking the money taboo

Looking through an empathetic lens and building this sense of connection, he believes, has the potential to finally break the taboo and shame around money; to get people talking about it in shared spaces, and through this build their financial wellbeing.

“At the moment, people don’t understand their money. They understand that money causes stress and anxiety and understand they should be saving, but often don’t know how,” he says. “People don’t have a grip on their relationship with money and that makes them feel bad.  And that’s because money gets divorced from culture. In many cultures it is taboo – money is not part of cultural conversation at all. As part of our purpose, we have the opportunity to make money part of the cultural conversation.”

Social media and technology can help make a difference, he believes. They open up spaces for everyone to talk about their finances and to realise they are not alone, releasing them from a conspiracy of silence.

Making financial wellbeing happen

Cooper believes that just by getting people talking about their money his industry will be delivering on BlackRock’s purpose. So, while the company’s commitment to financial wellbeing is already changing the way it interacts with consumers and the public, it isn’t just about what the experts are pushing out, but the conversations that flow from it.

“You will see content delivered in a different way,” he says. “It needs to be simple, intuitive, jargon free and to tell human stories in a format that people are familiar with. That’s the way forward – and it’s not rocket science. That’s why we provide 60-second documentaries about how people connect wealth and wellbeing, because if you know how people are ingesting information, why not deliver it that way?

But in the end, the key is not content; it is whether you can spark the conversation. Can you get people to start talking and take away the sense of shame around their money? We’re half a step away from bridging that gap.

“Financial wellbeing looks different to different people. For some it will simply mean stability: having the savings to sustain yourself in an emergency. For others it will be financial mobility: having what it takes to move jobs. For others it will be full financial freedom or the redefining of their retirement. My view is that we need to meet people where they are and help them take one step forward. We can give them small nudges, so they can start to understand the impact financial wellbeing can have. These are shifts that need to happen – and it’s our industry’s purpose to do it.”

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