This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal

Occupy Wall Street is swiftly becoming a memory, but the millennial generation that helped launch the sustained protest movement hasn't lost its antipathy toward the big banks it targeted. Seventy-one percent of millennials would rather go to the dentist than listen to anything banks have to say, according to the Millennial Disruption Index, a three-year study of roughly 10,000 millennials, born between the years 1981 and 2000, conducted by Scratch/Viacom Media Networks.

One in three millennials are also open to switching banks in the next 90 days. And four of the 10 most hated brands among millennials? You guessed it: Large financial institutions like Citigroup and Bank of America. It's enough to give any investment banker or CEO of a major financial institution pause, especially when it comes to wooing, advising, and keeping the younger generation happy.

But if the big-bank crowd is uneasy, community banks sense an opportunity. Jill Castilla, president and CEO of the 150-year-old Citizens Bank of Edmond outside of Oklahoma City, is adamant about adapting to suit the needs of her up-and-coming clientele, and she couldn't be happier. 

"We're in the position to attract millennials more than any other type of bank. They love to be part of a movement that's local," Castilla says by phone from her office. "Where else are they going to be able to tweet at the bank president at midnight on a Saturday and get a response the next day? They can't do that with Jamie Dimon [CEO of JPMorgan Chase]."

To better appeal to the millennial set, Castilla overhauled Citizens Bank's technology, outreach, and even the office space. She worked with a local vendor to design a special dual-screen ATM for customers. One screen allows consumers to deposit checks or retrieve cash electronically, just as a typical ATM does, while the other screen lets them connect in real time with a bank teller (without having to walk inside the bank or leave their car) to receive answers to more detailed questions.

Castilla herself runs an active Twitter feed and hands out her cell-phone number to customers as part of a strategy to appeal to millennials' desire for authentic contact with the companies they support. She even changed the layout of the bank and got rid of all the second-floor offices, so the bank seemed more approachable to visitors. "There is no special floor with a gatekeeper in our bank," she says. "Millennials want someone to listen to them."

Castilla is not the only community banker to see an opening in catering to the millennial generation. William Loving, CEO and president of Pendleton Community Bank, a chain of institutions in Virginia and West Virginia, recently overhauled his company's website so that consumers no longer need to physically enter a branch to open an account. His bank also launched new software for mobile phones to give customers a better snapshot of their finances in just a single screen.

Fourth-generation community banker and president and CEO of Grand Rapids State Bank in Minnesota, Noah Wilcox, spends his time thinking through the new financial products for the millennial generation, like how to make the mobile banking or loan process easier. "They are the business owners of tomorrow. This is who will drive the economy and government," he says. "We would do well to understand them, just as we understand our boomer and older clients' expectations."

Community bankers across the country are smart to zero in on the millennial set. Survey after survey shows that, in addition to their distrust of major banks, they also spend, save, and invest money differently than previous generations—at least, for now. A 2014 survey by UBS Investor Watch cast millennials as conservative investors: 52 percent kept the majority of their assets in cash and less than one-third of their assets in stocks.

Even millennials' notions of financial success differs from earlier generations. Forty-eight percent of respondents in the UBS survey listed having financial freedom as their chief hallmark of a good financial life, followed by 15 percent who wanted to provide for future family generations, or just 14 percent who expressed a desire to be well-compensated for what their work. They are much more likely to define success in terms of healthy relationships and fulfilling experiences.

Part of the shift in expectations comes from the aftermath of the Great Recession, from watching parents and friends lose money in the housing or stock market. But, millennials also grew up in an entirely different digital era, says Neil Pardasani, a partner and managing director at the Boston Consulting Group's Los Angeles office who specializes in financial services. Millennials expect their banks to compete on that level alongside retailers and other types of corporations. "Their expectations are being set from outside of financial services through companies like Amazon," he says.

This is not to say that millennials loathe money: making it, keeping it, or investing it. Seventy-eight percent of the millennials from the UBS survey indicated that income was an important ingredient to a good life, and they identified $220,000 as the average income it would take to be considered "successful."

That's all the more reason why community bankers are trying to leverage this particular historical moment—post-recession and in the midst of a locavore cultural movement—to make their case to a new generation of potential customers. "We just need to express who we are and tell our story more," says Rebeca Romero Rainey, vice chairman of the Independent Community Bankers of America and Chairman and CEO of Centinel Bank in Taos, N.M.

Community banks, like any business, still face hurdles as they try to adapt to the new age and new set of customers. The smaller bank and bank chains, for instance, do not have the same financial resources as major banks to overhaul their technology as quickly or as slickly. They're also not just competing with major big banks for millennials' future business. They're facing competition from digital players, like Paypal or Square in the mobile or computer payment arena, as well as the social-media prowess of major credit-card companies like American Express, Pardasani says—all of which have been making a big push to interact with millennials in the spaces where they live online.

The threat of fierce competition in the financial world for millennials' attention, though, ultimately may help the sector adapt and innovate more to this generation's liking. If not, millennials have shown that they're just as happy to move on to other financial products and companies that better suit them.

This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal and part of our Next Economy coverage.

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