Merrill Lynch began its ad strategy, built around helpful advice, two years ago, not long after its merger with Bank of America. This week it evolves that helping-hand message with a new brand platform.
The advertising and marketing creative focuses on the close relationship that clients, and prospective clients, can have with their local advisers. One of the initial print ads, for example, reads, "An adviser who knows the future you're planning for outgrows her shoes twice a year."
Joan Khoury, head of marketing for Merrill Lynch Wealth management, said clients' expectations for advisers has changed.
"During the downturn, an absolute strength [for us] was the relationship clients had with our advisers, and that showed up in our brand metrics. What surprised us coming out of the downturn was that they wanted to continue that very close connection with their advisers," Ms. Khoury said.
The $20 million campaign, dubbed "The Power of the Right Adviser" and developed along with Interpublic Group of Cos.' Hill Holliday, Boston, is built on several key issues that Merrill executives noted over the past year of research. Retirement is still No. 1 on consumers' minds, Ms. Khoury said, but so are liquidity, balancing demand and understanding risk. The creative executions will be designed to address those themes across media.
Along with Merrill's new brand platform, its media strategy is evolving as well. The old days of two major anthemic campaigns per year, weighted heavily to TV and print are over, Ms. Khoury said, Under this umbrella, Merrill will do more sponsorships, events and media partnerships, such as buying the branded spot above the CNBC news ticker, Major League Baseball sponsorships, an iPad app for its own Advisor Magazine and co-created sponsored content in Forbes magazine.
In the next two to three months, Merrill will also launch its first YouTube channel, with its own webcasts and panel discussions with experts on subjects such as retirement.
Tim Robinson, managing director at CoreBrand, said the idea of an adviser or consultant has become a common theme in financial brands' communications. The need is driven in part by consumers' new conservatism and skepticism, but also by the mass retiring of baby boomers who want guidance with their specific needs and lifestyle, he said.
"Schwab was probably the first to take that on by saying to people, 'We're personal, sit down with us and talk,'" he said. "What it comes down to really is a greater degree of customer service."
Financial services brands in general are still feeling the negative effect of the banking and credit crisis of late 2008. Mr. Robinson said while the decline in brand value has stopped, he hasn't "seen much in the way of gains" yet.
"I expect to see positive movement, but I think it will be hard to get back to pre-2008 brand reputations," he said.
Part of the problem for financial institutions could be consumers' lingering cynicism. John Mathes, director of brand services for Bancography, who specializes in local and regional bank branding, said he has seen some attempts at emotional- and relationship-building messages by large financial services companies, but that "I don't think it's credible. People don't really believe them. Because of all the bad press, many people are still shying away. ... [Financial service marketers] need to re-establish trust, but they can't come out and just say 'Trust us.'"
On Brand Finance's annual ranking of the world's top banking brands, including their financial health as well, Merrill Lynch ranked at No. 49 in 2011, up nine places from last year's No. 58. It estimated Merrill's brand value at $3.6 billion in 2011, vs. $2.8 billion in 2010.