"It's not about throwing a lot of ads out there. It's about blocking and tackling," says Ms. Polito, 42. Merrill began targeting individuals with investable assets starting at $100,000 to $250,000 and higher, Ms. Polito says, explaining that many consumers now have those seemingly lofty amounts thanks to 401(k) plans and individual retirement accounts built up during the 1990s economic boom.
"It is more of a mainstream [target] than we may think and than people thought five years ago," she says.
The company has pursued what it calls a "choice platform" for its U.S. Private Client Group, with several product selections and the option of online and offline channels. Advertising from WPP Group's J. Walter Thompson USA, New York, featured a financial adviser reassuring a nervous client.
Besides the ad message, the media strategy had to change, Ms. Polito says. Merrill's latest efforts have focused more selectively media such as cable TV, drive-time radio and magazines. Ms. Polito, a former exec VP-corporate marketing at Fidelity Investments, brought on Bill Melnick as director of advertising and media, charged with "cherry-picking all the right environments for the target."
In spite of the economic slowdown, Merrill broke new ads for its wealth management services in mid-June. The campaign features the voice of comedian Steve Martin steering nervous investors. "What we're really trying to do is make people understand there is no better time to get advice," Ms. Polito says.