Interview with Senior Manager Jens-Uwe Holthaus on the new zeb.Sustainability Study, surprises in data analysis and insights into the wishes of German bank customers
Mr. Holthaus, the new zeb.Sustainability Study is based on extensive opinion research conducted by zeb and the Sinus research institute among the German population. Why all this effort?
Jens-Uwe Holthaus: We started with the hypotheses that sustainability has arrived in the middle of society and is therefore no longer a niche topic, but that the personal relationship to sustainability is strongly based on attitudes. Classical demographic analyses, i.e. family background, income and education, do not really provide any relevant insights. With our data framework, which by the way is representative of the population, we can take a deeper look into the milieus. The study shows that sustainability, which used to be anchored mainly in the milieus of “social-ecological” and “liberal intellectuals”, is now of great importance in everyday life also for the “middle class” and the “expeditive milieu”. By conducting surveys along the Sinus milieus, we can use the data for further studies in the long term, in parallel with the social debate on sustainability.
Which results surprised you the most?
Firstly, that sustainability is now important for about 64 percent of the population—regardless of milieu—in everyday life and finances. Secondly, that “sustainability advocates”—people who classify sustainability as “very important” for everyday and financial decisions—now account for 9 percent of the German population. This means that this share has almost tripled compared to the zeb.Social Banking Study 2014. And thirdly, that sustainability aspects are relevant to the banking business.
What makes you say that?
The main reason is that customers with an affinity for sustainability, the aforementioned roughly 64 percent of the population, are significantly more satisfied with their bank. In our opinion, those customers have chosen their bank more consciously. We are going to analyze the reasons for this in future studies. In addition, two-thirds of the respondents would like to see a significant development on the part of their main bank regarding sustainability. And ultimately, sustainability even has economic relevance due to the customers’ willingness to pay more.
“Willingness to pay more”—you’ll have to explain that!
Customers with an interest in sustainability are prepared to pay more for financial products if they fulfill their requirements. In combination with effects of the EU’s “Green Deal”, we see earnings potential of around 1.6 billion euros per year in the retail banking business in Germany alone—that is no less than 3 percent of the earnings wallet. And given the dynamic development of sustainability, a further increase is possible.
How reliable are the figures, i.e. how much can one trust the affirmation that customers would really pay more for banking products and services?
We will continue to monitor this increase in the earnings wallet closely, because there is of course a danger that lip service or socially appropriate answers in the current environment are included here—talk about the “Thunberg effect”. We want to test this in the future with focus groups and in projects. What we do know for sure, however, is that about two-thirds of earnings in retail banking are attributable to customers with an affinity for sustainability. The leverage—or the risk of a missing or untrustworthy sustainability strategy—is correspondingly high.
Another figure from the study describes the willingness to change banks...
That’s right, sustainability-oriented customer segments are also noticeably more willing to change providers if their bank does not meet their sustainability requirements. This applies to 41 percent of sustainability advocates—compared with only 17 percent of the general population.
How well do German banks meet the demands of their customers?
Let’s put it this way, there’s still room for improvement overall. At present, a few pioneers, i.e. consistently aligned banks without sustainability compromises and with a claim to shaping society, can be identified. On the whole, the market is starting to pay more attention to the topic, and more or less systematic individual measures can be seen everywhere. This is also driven by new sustainability-related regulations. However, the coronavirus has somewhat superseded the topic in the short term. Otherwise, we would have seen more developments in the past six months. However, we are convinced that sustainability will become the big issue for the industry over the next twelve months. Even today, it is already possible to learn from best practices at national and international banks. This makes it all the more important that banks now deliver quickly. Their customers demand it, the figures speak for themselves.