Get emotional about pension savings

25 June 2018

This article was featured in the July - August 2018 issue of the magazine.

Johanna Nelson, associate director, communications, Punter Southall Aspire, follows up on her previous article and identifies ways to use emotions in pensions 


There are fears of a significant rise in the number of employees opting out of auto-enrolment schemes when the minimum employee contribution rate rises to 5% next year. Therefore, it’s critical we find new ways of showing people how important it is to maintain and build on their pension savings. Otherwise, surely, it’s inevitable that our society will face a retirement funding crisis in the years to come? 

We must enable our employees to retire with decent pension pots. But how? 

In my previous article (see June, Issue 41) I looked at the concept of emotional marketing. This is the idea that as human beings we are driven by emotional triggers – such as happiness, anger, fear and greed – far more than rational factors like reason or logic. That’s why you’ll often see good marketing campaigns appeal first and foremost to emotions. It’s why so much marketing is designed to make us laugh, shock us or make us feel good. 

Of course, logic does have a role to play, but it’s widely thought that we often make an emotional decision first – then justify it with reason. 

In our experience, the world of pensions doesn’t use emotional marketing. There are probably several reasons for this, including the jargon and the legal necessity to keep things straight. 


...widely thought that we often make an emotional decision first – then justify it with reason


Are there any emotions we can appeal to that will encourage more people to save for their retirement – and encourage those who are already doing so to save more? Here are four examples of how we could use emotional messaging.

  • Fear – Ideally, people shouldn’t be scared into submission but made to feel positive about pension saving. That said, some of the most effective public-information campaigns have highlighted miserable outcomes – take the drink-driving and Think Bike road-safety campaigns, for example.

So, one way to highlight the pitfalls of not saving is to include a range of forecasts in annual statements, alongside showing what current behaviour is likely to lead to. For example, a separate forecast could show what retirement income is likely to be if contributions are stopped or reduced. That might make people keep their existing contributions or even up them. 

What if employers sent these statements to employees who are not participating in their pension schemes, too?  The figures would show just what that they are facing in retirement, which might shock people into action.

A communications campaign could focus on the negative outcomes people can expect if they do not save revealing what kind of lifestyle someone with a minimal pension can expect, and the difference every few hundred pounds a month makes. Ask people to imagine their lives without a car, if they are unable to maintain their home and if basics became a luxury.

The more vivid these scenarios, the more emotional the campaign.

  •  Love – Love is not something which usually springs to mind when we talk about pensions, but building a pension is a means to an end. It’s not something we do for its own sake but to enable us to enjoy life after we’ve finished work. 

A big part of our post-working life is spent with loved ones, so this is a key message for people who might need convincing that a pension is something worth bothering about. Emphasise that people with good pensions will have more money to spoil their grandkids, to ensure their children’s financial stability and to be with their families and friends, instead of working.

Yes, it might be hard for people to get their head around something that might not pay out for another forty-plus years. But it will ultimately mean they can enjoy their time with those they love without worrying about their finances – a great call to action.

  • Guilt – The flip side is the guilt of someone who is not able to support his or her family in retirement – and in fact, becomes a drain on their resources. 

How would they feel if they had nothing other than the state pension to rely on in later life?

Many people who don’t plan for their retirement find themselves living on the state pension, which can be a huge shock. Even if they just about get by and pay for their heating and eating, it will be a frugal existence – so who’s going to take care of them? In many cases, it will be the next generation. Nobody wants to be a financial burden on their children – yet that is what could happen for those who don’t make the right provision, and that can lead to guilt in old age.


...perfect opportunity to appeal to this emotion via people’s annual pension statements


This fate is easily avoided with the right planning, though, so tie in a solution with this message. Rather than simply highlighting how guilty people might feel, show them how they can avoid ending up in that position.

  • Satisfaction – People like to be proved right, so affirmation they’ve been doing the right thing makes them feel good. 

There’s the perfect opportunity to appeal to this emotion via people’s annual pension statements. Showing them just how quickly their pension pots have grown can provide them with instant satisfaction, and a clear breakdown of where all the money has come from can add to that impact.

A chart highlighting employee and employer contributions along with the tax relief will highlight just how much money they have accumulated in return for a relatively small sacrifice from their own income. And once the growth of the pension pot is included, too, the result can be even more impressive.

Emphasising that someone who has paid in, say, £25,000, now has a pot worth perhaps £80,000 is a sure-fire way to trigger a positive emotion. 

People who save with a bank can also see that money grow each month. But nowadays, that growth is likely to be modest and the majority will come from people’s own contributions. 

With a pension plan, the relatively huge impact of the employer’s and government’s contributions can look like a bargain. Making that information big and bold in an annual statement can engender a very positive response. It is likely to cement people’s belief that they are acting smartly and reassure them they should maintain course – or possibly increase contributions.