Sunday, November 25, 2007

McCracken, Grant on marketing capital markets

Marketing financial markets: Schwab triumph

For a long time, financial services regarded marketing as infra dig, something you did (if you did it) while holding your nose. But this is changing.

A friend and former banker, Susan Abbott, wrote to say that Charles Schwab had always been ahead of the marketing game. And indeed yesterday, I spotted an Schwab ad that read:

"'My house is worth a million' is not a retirement plan"

Wonderful. This demonstrates a detailed knowledge of the consumer. My research tells me this is precisely the way many consumers think about their financial affairs. The topic is so loaded with mystery and anxiety that if the consumer has a "short form" solution (like "my house is worth a million"), he/she will seize on this as their "plan." And when there's talk about a real estate bubble, well, a tremor runs through the consumer, but even this is not enough to make them seize the issue and put things right.

"My house" goes right at this issue. It goes straight into the consumer. It finds them where they live. This is consumer centricity, that great objective of all marketing, so much praised, so rarely accomplished. "My House" engages in that remarkable way that good research and creative can.

Props go to Euro RSCG Worldwide-New York (especially Ron Berger and Michael Lee), and to the marketing team at Schwab, (and especially Rebecca Saeger). It looks as if Schwab did the research. Plainly Euro RSCG did the creative.

I wonder if other players in financial services know how good this work is and far they must go to catch up. As Schwab's Glen Mathison puts it, "[Most financial services advertising is] filled with images of people on the beach or with their families, and it doesn't stand out." Indeed, most financial institutions are still the captives of the kind of thing the CSD industry was doing in the 1950s and early 1960s. "Happy families" is the rough equivalent of Coke's "fun in the sun" creative.

This tells us how steep is the marketing mountain most must now climb.

I leave for later discussion (or reader comment), the use of "Chuck" instead of Charles Schwab and the use of Waking Life animation in the TV spots. I am on the fence about "Chuck." I am impressed with one of the Waking Life animations (the Asian guy) and a little creeped out by another (the execution for "woman on a chair lift"). Both are vivid, however, and return to memory with a power that "people sitting on the beach" cannot match.


Elliott, Stuart. 2005. A Schwab Campaign Steeped in Personality. New York Times. September 27, 2005.

French, Julie. 2005. Campaign Close-Up: Charles Schwab. Sales and Marketing. here.
(This is the source for the Mathison quote.)

McCracken, Grant. 2006. Marketing the Capital Markets. This Blog Sits At... February 17, 2006. here.

Posted by Grant McCracken in March 01 2006 at 12:49 PM in Marketing Watch | Permalink

Marketing the capital markets
The office of J.P. Morgan and Company at 23 Wall Street is luxurious but unmarked. The implicit message: "If you have to ask, you can't come in."

The world of financial markets was close to an aristocratic preserve. Its occupants were to capital what the "black nobility" were to the Pope: noble Roman families with prestigious ceremonial positions at the papal court and vast influence in the city beyond.

These princes of capitalism weren't like the rest of us, grubby merchants struggling to make a living. These people came from good families. They had the benefit of good degrees, patrician manners, and the right connections. Most of all, they enjoyed a certain self confidence, and a quiet self regard.

Most of all, the princes of capitalism did not shill. After all, shill was shrill. Every gentleman and woman understood that the first law of status was sprezzatura (to conceal art with art, to conceal effort with grace). You might be "working at it." But you must never be seen to be "working at it."

If you have to ask, you can't come in.

But things have changed. Now the capital markets live in a world that's a lot like yours and mine. They have to ask. This means marketing.

And they have their work cut out for them. Most people still treat matters of money, capital, finance, the stock market, and even simple banking matters as if they were essential mystical or at least magical. The math makes it scary. What remains of the hauteur of the capital markets makes it intimidating.

But there is a mystery at the very heart of money. For most people, even sophisticated, well educated people, in a sensible world, money doesn't make money, people do. Most were raised with a notion that value is created by an "honest day of labor." The idea that money makes money, this is insufficient narrative. Who's the agent, we want to know. How can something make more of itself? (I know it sounds crazy. But then that's what anthropology is for: unearthing things that on finer scrutiny are simply odd.)

Lots of the consumers of financial institutions practice "money avoidance." Once they set things up, they tend to leave them be. Leave to the expert. Even if the interest rate is ludicrous. Even if the financial products are completely wrong for them. Good news for the existing bank, mutual fund or credit card. Bad news for anyone who is trying to win new business.

But everyone is now trying. And the most trying try are those photos we see in the lobby of our local bank. Stock images of happy families, young, prosperous, sunny. Oi! This marketing gesture is designed to put a human face on capital, but, for my money, it just ends up making the enterprise look even more mythical and extraplanetary. I mean, who are these people?

And then you get the ad that appeared in the Wall Street Journal this morning. It reads "Put Your Lance Face on" and it shows Lance Armstrong head and shoulders, larger than life. The photo is over-lit so that we can see every pore on Mr. Armstrong's face and Mr. Armstrong has an expression that is absolutely Martian. He looks like the human machine we know him to be.

We can see what American Century Investments was trying to do. Here's what the ad says:

What does it mean to put your Lance face on? It means taking responsbility for your future. It means developing a plan for the most important goals in your life. It mean staying focused and determined in the face of challenges. When it comes to investing, it means the same thing. Lance makes every decision count. You can too. For more information, contact our financial advisor...

Not very subtle. Not by any means state of the art advertising. But a sincere effort to draw a comparison between Lance Armstrong and the kind of investor we can be if we work with American Century Investments.

The trouble is, and this is the strategic problem, it is really hard for any of us to accept the comparison. All of us know Lance Armstrong to be a kind of God. I mean, the guy recovers from cancer and wins the Tour de France. He wins the Tour de France over and over again. If there is a hero in our world, if there is a human who has assumed mythical proportions, it's Lance Armstrong. The ad would like to transfer meaning (responsibility, focus, determination) from Lance to us, thanks to American Century Investments, but none of us is likely to find this plausible.

The trouble is, and this is the executional problem, the ad itself exacerbates the strategic issue by giving us a picture of Lance that confirms our worst suspicion: that he's not like us, that all comparisons are preposterous. Lance is a Martian. We are not. (Well, I'm hoping I have a couple of Martian readers. You know who you are.)

I am sure my distinguished colleague in Toronto, Susan Abbott, a former banker and a gifted marketer, would have caught this marketing howler. I suspect that Pip Coburn and his remarkable team at Coburn Ventures would have thought their way out of it.

But a good deal of the rest of the capital markets are struggling to catch up to an elementary understanding of marketing. How they must stoop to conquer!


Anon. 2006. "Put Your Lance Face On." Full page ad for American Century Investments. Wall Street Journal. February 10, 2006, p. A9.

Posted by Grant McCracken at 10:57 AM in Marketing Watch | Permalink

Marketing the capital markets II

Friday, we noted that financial services and the capital markets have recently been obliged to climb down off their high horse. Now they must at least pretend that the "consumer is king," that "voice of the consumer" counts, that it is time to be "consumer centric," [insert favorite marketing cliche here]. (Well, they may be cliches to us. Not in the money biz, apparently.)

Friday, we noted there are muddles in the models. Thus, when American Century Investments uses Lance Armstrong, it's not clear they have it exactly right. The metaphor (Lance is to athletic achievement what you the consumer can be to financial achievement) spins into implausibility. No meaning is transferred. A great wad of cash is wasted. The consumer is mystified.

Today, an ad from citi:

It's not I$NY

The heart of New York

is so much more than Wall Street

To help keep it in perspective,

we offer free financial guidance

to help you get control of your future.

Because after all,

people drive the economy.

The stock market just rides shot gun.

Something about this ad makes me nervous. There is something odd about protesting the obvious. Surely, none of us has ever doubted that "the heart of New York is so much more than Wall Street."

I can't help wondering whether this is not a kind of semiotic leakage. Without meaning to, the ad gives away the Wall Street conviction that it is the center of NYC.

And then citi presumes to help me "keep it in perspective." Um. Actually, I believe this is my job, keeping things in perspective is, and, no, no help is actually called for.

Then there's the non sequitur: financial guidance will help me keep the fact that Wall Street is not the heart of Wall Street? Really? I guess I see what's intended here. That good advice will help me think less about money, and that will help me participate in the life of the city. But, er, advertising is the art where perfect clarity meets perfect compression. No guessing should be necessary.

But then things get really strange. "People drive the economy, the stock market just rides shotgun."

So you're saying my career is a covered wagon. Really, I am so flattered. Really, I am this close to tears. And, what, you're protecting me? With a shot gun? Get out of here! I'm, like, Roy Rogers. And you're like...Jingles! Jingles with a shotgun! That gives me a nice warm feeling. A large, stupid man with his finger on the trigger.

It's a little like watching an evolutionary process. An industry that never used to care about marketing is having to learn how to do it on the run, branding itself as it goes. Each players in the industry is trying out several experments. Some of them (Lance and Jingles) will work as object lessons, what not to do. The industry "brand" will eventually prove emergent.

I'm just guessing but I think the future of the marketing the capital markets lies almost exactly between Jingles and J.P. Morgan.


Blanchard, Olivier. 2006. Let the games begin. Editorial at Corante Marketing. here.

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