America's new mass affluent blend so effortlessly into society that it's often impossible to tell them apart from a traditional middle class family one day, or from an upper class family the next.
Depending on which day you encounter a typical new mass affluent family, a mother could be found cutting out coupons and buying bulk at Sam's Club, or she and her husband could be playing golf at their country club.
And while many of these 22 million American households do not accept the notion that they are relatively wealthy, with a collective net worth of $22 trillion, many financial services institutions do. Thus, for quite some time now, several firms have tried to target this growing class of quasi-elite-to no avail.
Essentially, this diverse, independent market segment of promising clients has evolved into a holy grail for marketers, who sit back and scratch their heads as they tune out firms and professional advisers in favor of a do-it-yourself investing approach.
Claritas, a Nielsen Company, and Celent recently conducted studies to find out exactly who the new mass affluent are.
According to Claritas, the mass affluent represent the top 19% in the United States, and these numbers are up 23% from just a decade ago. Financially speaking, this group's annual household earnings of $100,000 or more is more than double the national median income of $48,280. They also possess income-producing assets of at least $100,000. Using a slightly altered scale, Celent defines the mass affluent as U.S. households a with net worth between $250,000 and $2 million.
One key Claritas finding is that pockets of wealth are no longer concentrated in traditional metropolitan cities, instead residing in "ex-urban second cities," such as West-Hartford, Conn., or Los Alamos, N.M. These suburbs offer relatively affordable living, but still provide many with the opportunity to stay connected to hub of a larger city nearby.
Regardless of which name or method one prefers to use when referring to this budding wealth group, both studies agree that many of these nouveau-riche families are extremely misunderstood and underserved by financial institutions.
"The new mass affluent are sophisticated consumers who often tune out traditional marketing strategies," said Jane Crossan, vice president of the financial services group at Claritas. "Perhaps most challenging of all, many simply don't think of themselves as rich."
Their humble self-identification may be attributed to the reality that some grew up in modest, middle-class communities where money had to be earned rather than inherited. And it's no wonder that they shy away from traditional marketing, because the new mass affluent tend to be highly educated and are used to being self-reliant.
According to Robert J. Ellis, senior vice president of wealth management at Celent, and co-author of the Celent report, some people may say to themselves, "Hey wait a minute, you know, this financial adviser, he's no smarter than I am. He may not even have better sources of information that I have. Why am I paying him a commission, or why am I paying him an asset management fee for things that I can learn about on my own?
"For that truly self-directed, totally self-motivated individual, you don't introduce an adviser, you do everything automatically over the Internet, and through other forms of direct communication," Ellis suggested.
Essentially, the secret to targeting and winning over the new mass affluent lies in specifically determining what kind of person they are, and then tailoring a strategy around that individual.
"To be successful, we have to differentiate our message, tweaking the language and the proposition to the different segments, [because] we've learned that it's more important to connect with customers based on who they are than on what financial product" we have to offer, said David Toth, director of marketing at Pittsburgh-based PNC, which has adopted Claritas' "P$YCLE" segmentation system that divides people into 58 groups of distinct financial behavior and lifestyles. Of this total, the new mass affluent consists of eight.
The top group, known as The Wealth Market, is what many would typically associate with the notion of "old money." Suburban couples over 65 years of age dominate this segment, and of these 2.6 million households, 48% have more than $2 million in assets. These families have high-end cars, wear custom clothing and jewelry, and are actively pursued by yacht salesmen.
The second highest mass-affluent segment, Business Class, consists of mid-fifties executives who are more likely to be found carrying prestige credit cards than cash. The Prosperous Parents group tends to be composed of middle-aged families with kids, juggling mortgages, college savings plans and retirement accounts.
One of the most sought-after segments for financial companies might be the Jumbo Mortgages, which consists largely of suburban Baby Boomer families.
In truth, the expected surge of attention over mass affluent families boils down to the reality that financial institutions would like nothing more than to cash in on the large number of soon-to-retire Baby Boomers.
Boomers' maturing 401(k) plans could result in a wealth transfer of upwards of $16 trillion, according to the Bank Administration Institute, although some speculate that anywhere from $5 trillion to $30 trillion might be available, depending on various factors such as rising healthcare costs and life expectancy.
Even in the scenario where there is less money available, there is still another major issue at hand-the fact that financial advisers are a dying breed. A typical adviser may currently service several hundred clients, but as more Boomers retire, that number will surely increase.
To cope with a heavier client load while maintaining a high level of service, it is essential that technology play a crucial role. Undoubtedly, tools like dashboards, alerts and portfolio aggregation tools will be critical.
And with approximately 29% of the new mass affluent likely to complain that most advertising is either "annoying" or "has no credibility," marketers definitely have their work cut out for them.
Therefore, the only logical solution for financial companies is to incorporate technology in the most effective manner possible, and act quickly like PNC has done when it comes to segmenting the new mass affluent.
At the very least, financial institutions need to fully comprehend that there is a huge difference between mass marketing, and marketing to the mass affluent.
That is to say that groups within the new mass affluent do not always follow the status quo, and while some families prefer luxury items and vacations, their neighbors may prefer faux jewelry and a cold beer at a simple backyard barbeque.
(c) 2008 Money Management Executive and SourceMedia, Inc. All Rights Reserved.