Bullish financial ads in a bear market

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Staking out its position as a leader in the bear market, Merrill Lynch & Co. last month ran an aggressive eight-page ad spread in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and other business publications.

The insert, which opened with a vivid picture of a menacing bear, proclaimed, "Is the bear managing you, or are you managing the bear?"

It went on to showcase the financial expertise of Merrill Lynch, with the advice that "there is always a smart place to put your money."

Aimed at investors with $250,000 or more in investment assets, the print campaign was designed to position Merrill Lynch as the premier investment firm in the U.S., said Bob Horton, director of brand management at Merrill Lynch.

"The drop in the Dow [Jones Industrial Average] was a shock to everyone," Horton said. "People are looking for specific solutions on stocks and their whole financial picture."

The index of 30 blue-chip stocks recorded steep losses this summer, falling in July to levels not seen since September 1998. Also in July, the Nasdaq Stock Market index fell to its lowest close since April 1997, and the S&P 500 dropped to levels not seen since May 1997.

Advertising to restore confidence

To restore confidence in investing, Merrill Lynch decided to launch the prominent print campaign, which also ran in regional publications such as the Boston Globe and Chicago Tribune.

It was created by Boathouse Group Inc., Needham, Mass., and took about one month to develop, Horton said.

Merrill Lynch isn’t the only financial company exploring the opportunities for advertising in these troubled economic times.

Wachovia Securities recently launched a $60 million ad campaign, developed by Mullen, Winston-Salem, N.C., in an effort to attract investors. One TV spot shows a well-dressed couple in a canoe, paddling toward shore.

‘’What can a canoe teach us about investment banking? Whether you get soaked depends on proper balance," the voice-over states.

And Ameritrade earlier this year ran a series of humorous ads that depict a bull and a bear bantering about the market. Ameritrade said it used both symbols because people have different investment styles.

The topic is also being discussed at industry meetings. On July 11, a group of financial leaders met at a roundtable discussion hosted by the International Advertising Association and the Financial Communications Society to discuss the use of global financial advertising in the current economic climate.

Executives from UBS Warburg, Goldman Sachs & Co., Salomon Smith Barney and other investment banks attended the meeting, which was held at the offices of The Wall Street Journal in New York.

Marketers in two camps

"There are two camps that marketers are falling into," said Bill Wreaks, managing director of KDM, the media unit of ad agency Doremus, and VP of the International Advertising Association.

"One camp is of the belief that rates are very negotiable right now, so why not market?" Wreaks said. "The other camp believes it’s time to wait and see, and not beat their drums too loudly."

He said the executives at the roundtable agreed that appropriateness of the message is paramount to any financial ad campaign developed now, particularly in the aftermath of the Enron scandal and amid regulatory scrutiny of U.S. corporations.

"We are being held to a higher standard," Wreaks said. "The message and media plan should be appropriate and convey value."

He also said financial marketers have a unique opportunity now to use technology to create a two-way dialogue with investors and business partners. "This is a time of value," he said. "That’s what business advertisers and business customers are looking for."

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