Financial marcomms: Its 30-year evolution seen through an awards show lens

by | Jan 11, 2024 | Public Relations

As the Financial Communications Society (FCS) prepares to celebrate our 30th annual FCS Portfolio Awards, a retrospective of how the financial industry’s marketing and communications efforts have evolved over three decades seems in order. 

Portfolio was created to recognize excellence by financial marketers in over 35 comms and content categories. Since the first Portfolio in 1995, the FCS has had a front-row seat to how marketing and PR professionals have responded to financial disruptions, technology advancements and other changes that shaped this industry’s evolution, evidenced by the types of entries and each year’s ultimate winners.  

The dawn of digital marketing

The 1990s marked the beginning of the digital revolution in marketing. As the internet became more accessible, financial services companies established themselves online, launching websites and rolling out email communications that have never ceased. This period laid the foundation for digital customer engagement, a critical shift from traditional print and television advertising—that shift, however, lagged at the Portfolio competition. Our original categories were strictly for advertising in Magazine, Newspaper, Television, Radio, and Direct Mail. (Can you remember when Print advertising was so strong that it could justify two categories?) Portfolio’s very first “Interactive” finalist was Merrill Lynch Private Client in 1997, and the following year, MasterCard and Founder Funds were finalists in the “New Media” category.  

The dot-com bubble bursts

Portfolio didn’t award any “Interactive” finalists again until 2004—well after the burst of the dot-com bubble. That watershed period led financial services to overweight their messaging on trust and stability (something that has echoed time and time again, most recently in 2023, following the regional banking crisis). It was during this period that financial marketers began to focus on Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM), as they looked to bolster their visibility on emerging search engines like Google. 

From 9/11 to the global financial crisis

Post-9/11 marketing themes in financial advertising and public relations strategies looked to resonate with the national sentiment by emphasizing patriotism, security, and risk management. It wasn’t long afterwards that there was a doubling down on corporate image messaging as the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-2008 led to a dramatic shift in financial services marketing. The entire industry concentrated on rebuilding consumer trust, while emphasizing regulatory compliance and transparency. This period also saw the acceleration of digital banking services, with a focus on online and mobile banking features. This rise in all things digital was evident at Portfolio as well, as digital media have accounted for at least 40 percent of all winners beginning in 2007. (In 2022, nearly 70 percent of all Portfolio entries were some form of Digital Media.) 

Social media and mobile technology take center stage

In the 2010s, the rise of social media platforms revolutionized marketing across industries, and despite compliance-driven resistance in some pockets, eventually financial services went along for the ride. Companies leveraged platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn for brand building, customer engagement, and targeted advertising. The widespread adoption of smartphones further pushed financial services to endorse a mobile-first strategy, developing apps and mobile-optimized websites for a growing consumer base that preferred on-the-go access. At the FCS, we positioned the Portfolio Awards competition to stay in step with emerging tech, introducing new categories like Organic & Paid Social Media, Apps & Tools, Tablet, and Mobile (the latter two were eventually dropped as marcomms strategies quickly unified).  

Big data gets personalized

The utilization of big data analytics allowed financial services to understand customer behavior and preferences better, leading to more personalized and targeted marketing strategies. The integration of AI and machine learning continues to enable greater sophistication of customer segmentation, resulting in more measurable and effective campaigns—especially as creative and messaging could be crafted with greater, data-driven insights about consumers. 

The pandemic and beyond

Of course, the pandemic challenged financial marketers to adapt their expertise in digital tools to create virtual customer service and engagement experiences. Messaging, therefore, pivoted to empathy and support, acknowledging the economic hardships faced by customers—which have only been heightened by rising inflation and interest rate hikes over the past two years. This, however, created the opportunity for financial services companies to speak about products again, especially those that protect against inflation and educate consumers about the risks of interest rate fluctuations. Joining the conversation, fintech companies have introduced innovative digital services, committed to improving consumers’ access, understanding, and involvement within the financial marketplace. 

Empathy, product focus, and digital platforms have all come together as we see influencer marketing becoming increasingly prevalent, particularly for reaching younger demographics. So, it may not be a surprise that the one new category being added to the FCS Portfolio Awards this year is Influencer Marketing. 

Because the Financial Communications Society is first and foremost a community, it’s easy for us to evolve with our membership and keep them astride innovative thinking by staging frequent events with the industry’s leading marketers. It’s our Awards competition, however, that serves as a barometer for how financial marketers are striving to deliver their companies’ messages and products. From the first decade of Portfolio, when Television and Print dominated the winner’s circle, to the past five years, when Web Video and Social Media stepped into the limelight, we’ve seen the expansion of the marketer’s toolbox. Yet, the undeniable truth is that the very best financial brands succeed by knowing how to deliver it all together –Integrated Marketing campaigns have won the top prizes at Portfolio nearly 80% of the time since the very beginning. 

The Call for Entries for the 30th Annual FCS Portfolio Awards is now open. The top-level categories include Advertising, Branding, Collateral, Digital Media, Employee Communications, Events, External Communications, Integrated Marketing, Media Strategy, and Public Relations.

Kevin Windorf
Kevin Windorf is CEO of Financial Communications Society.


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