Block's less taxing future

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H&R Block kicks off tax season this month with its first campaign from its new ad agency, Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis, in an effort to show the company is about more than just tax preparation.

Campbell Mithun replaced Y&R Advertising, New York, last year on the general advertising, direct marketing and consumer promotions portion of Block's $100 million global account. In addition to TV, print and radio advertising, the new push, breaking today, includes direct and online marketing, a million-dollar contest tie-in with ABC's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" and promotional tie-ins with retailers and technology companies.

The campaign's tagline, "Just Plain Smart," stakes out the company's spot in the marketplace, said David Byers, Block's senior VP-chief marketing officer. "Our positioning in the financial services world is we're the accessible provider to Middle America. No one else has it," Mr. Byers said.

All financial services providers chase the same set of high income individuals, but few go after the average consumer, he said. "They're under-banked, they're under-brokeraged, they're under-financial-planned," Mr. Byers added. But those first-time investors, playing catch-up, tend to put down larger amounts than veteran investors, he said.

Block's new effort is more product-focused than last year's brand-oriented work, which highlighted tax preparation. This month, Block introduces Express IRA, a retirement-saving account that can be opened with the client's tax refund.

The first TV commercials focus on Block's ability to navigate complex tax forms and speed up refunds. In one TV spot, a tax client marvels at his refund. "I can smell it," he says, sniffing his 1040. In another, a tax preparer touts the company while money piles on every surface around the office-until a staffer must move the cash out of the way with a leaf blower.

Block will broaden its ad focus in spring to promote financial planning and mortgage services. The creative is still under development, but both will use the "Just Plain Smart" tagline.

Block's move last January to broaden its services to that of a year-round financial services company was well received by Wall Street analysts because it compensates for the seasonal swings in Block's tax business. Until 1999, virtually all its profits were made during the first quarter of each year. Now, the company hopes to leverage its relationship with more than 16 million U.S. tax preparation clients to expand the other lines of business.

That cross-selling amounts to a strong advantage, Mr. Byers said, noting the annual tax refunds are seen by consumers as "America's bonus program"-often the only savings households have all year. By being there when the refunds are calculated, Block's staff has the inside line in converting those tax customers into financial services clients with no acquisition costs to drain profits. "They're already sitting there. We already have them as tax customers. It costs us nothing," he said.

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