With Merrill Edge, 'Ignored' Affluent Investors Get Renewed Attention

Bank of America's Claire Huang Explains How Target Audience's Post-Recession Pessimism Requires a New Message

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YORK, Pa. (AdAge.com) -- Affluent consumers might have felt largely ignored during the recession, but with Merrill Edge, they're again getting paid some attention.

Claire Huang
Claire Huang
Bank of America Merrill Lynch's online investing service quietly launched in the second half of 2010, mostly to existing customers. But today Merrill Edge gets its first external marketing and advertising campaign in a bid to not only continue to attract its own customers, but also lure other banks' online investors.

The new campaign is an all-digital effort with online media placement including Yahoo Finance, MSN Money and CNNMoney.com, but does includes some promotion at its banks and ATMs. The online creative touts the "investment insights of Merrill Lynch" and the "banking strength of Bank of America" in Merrill Edge, abbreviated as "ME" in the work. Hill Holliday handled creative and Starcom handled media buying

The combination of brand powerhouses, both in terms of customer regard of them as well as capabilities, results in an offering "no one else has," said Claire Huang, head of marketing for Bank of America's Global Wealth and Investment Management, who is leading the Merrill Edge effort.

"Merrill Edge is a game-changer ... with unmatched banking and investing solutions to a spectrum of affluent consumers," added Anne Finucane, global strategy and marketing officer, Bank of America, in an email. She also said that the growth of Merrill Edge depends on growing relationships with existing customers.

And indeed that is the first priority, Ms. Huang echoed. Of Bank of America's 60 million households -- "we're in more households than Tide," Ms. Huang quipped -- some 15 million fall into the target audience for Merrill Edge, described as consumers with $50,000 to $250,000 in investable assets. Bank of America calls them the "mass affluent." But only a "tiny percentage" of that 15 million already have investment accounts with Bank of America or Merrill Lynch, Ms. Huang said. Bank of America reported last week that since its launch, Merrill Edge has added 4,600 new accounts and $340 million in assets.

The right timing
While this combined product has been planned since Bank of America bought Merrill Lynch two years ago, the time was right for a launch because of the way the mass affluent are thinking, she added.

"They felt forgotten and ignored throughout the recession. They feel that if you were rich you got attention, but no one paid attention to them. And they believe they suffered more. ... They have a new mindset after the recession," she said.

She has insight into that mindset thanks to Bank of America's market research on the group. Along with the advertising and marketing campaign, Bank of America also plans to launch today the semi-annual Merrill Edge Report, conducted by Braun Research, which will offer deep dives on the financial thinking of this group of investors.

Some of the initial findings show a pervasive post-recession pessimism. Almost half (45%) of respondents believe they will never be wealthy -- even though many have six-figure-plus household incomes. Two in five (41%) expect to retire later than they thought they would just a year ago; 28% have tapped long-term savings to meet short-term demands in the past year; and 63% said they believe saving is only going to get harder.

One of the ways Merrill Edge is responding to this new mindset is by ditching the traditional "big picture" financial plan marketing mentality. That is, instead of pushing the big plan for life on customers, they plan to help customers with smaller financial "jobs," such as saving for their kids' college education, remodeling a kitchen next year, buying a second home or even just creating an emergency fund, Ms. Huang said.

"People don't want to dig out seven years of credit-card statements and tax returns to do a financial plan," she said. "They want bite-size chunks [of financial advice] that fit what they want to do."

All-digital campaign sets high standard
The marketer selected all digital media for this campaign because that's where the target audience is, Ms. Huang said. This group already banks online -- 58% go online daily to check accounts -- and they're financially savvy potential customers who want more control.

The campaign follows Bank of America's decision in December to no longer handle Wikileaks payments, joining other financial institutions including MasterCard and PayPal. Wikileaks struck back at Bank of America on Twitter, advising people to put their funds elsewhere. Its founder, Julian Assange, had already told reporters in November that Wikileaks' next target will be a bank.

"There are some things we can control, and some things we can't," Ms. Huang said when asked about Wikileaks. "We have a good story to tell [with Merrill Edge] ... The only thing we can do is go out and tell our story in the same space."

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