Financial Advertisers Need to Strike Reassuring Note

Brand Specialists Advise Marketers to Keep Lines of Communication Open

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NEW YORK ( -- If you're in financial-services marketing, what do you do now that levels of distrust, worry and anger are growing against the sector as a whole?

Speak up, said Paul Jensen, general manager of Weber Shandwick's New York office and head of the agency's corporate practice, who said it's vital for every company in the industry to be in regular communication with the media, employees and consumers. He said the short-term goal for the industry needs to be restoring consumer confidence.
Paul Jensen, head of Weber Shandwick's corporate practice
Paul Jensen, head of Weber Shandwick's corporate practice

"Now's not the time to hide under a rock if the market has questions about your financial stability," said Mr. Jensen, who would not disclose if his agency was providing counsel to any of the players in this current dilemma. "Companies need to rise above fear and continue to communicate. Control what you can and don't get fixated on what you can't. The old rules of transparency and consistency still apply."

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Dennis Kneale, tech and media editor at CNBC and former managing editor at Forbes magazine, believes the messaging will change industry-wide. He imagines the themes will be more about protection and security ("We can keep you safe") as opposed to the usual swagger and boasting.

'Shattered' trust
Richard Myers, head of Edelman's New York financial practice, said the message has to be one of believability and trust. "Two iconic brands [Bear Stearns and Lehman] that people believed in for years have suddenly shattered people's trust, and other firms seem close behind," he said. "It is almost like many in the industry are being seen as having been unfaithful, and it is going to take more than sending flowers to build back the trust."

Mr. Myers said the agency was contacted by some of the industry's biggest names last week but would not disclose if it was working with Lehman, Merrill or American International Group.

Neil Parker, global head of strategy at Wolff Olins, believes that simply changing the ad messaging isn't enough: a "fundamental" shift in branding needs to take place, including doing away with the empty claims and anxiety-inducing tactics.

"Stop having brands be about claims of trustworthiness and have brands be about making you more worthy of trust," he said. "AIG's tagline is 'The Strength to Be There' and the company nearly disappears in a puff of smoke. These taglines are exposed as empty claims."

The American Bankers Association, which represents 95% of the industry's $13.3 trillion in assets, launched a communications effort aimed at its members a few months back, which included an advisory to its member banks about the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and, on its website, talking points for them to use in media interviews regarding the soundness of the industry.

Opportunity in pullback
CNBC'S Mr. Kneale said he thinks a lot of companies will pull their TV and print ads at least temporarily, creating an opportunity for a marketer that can strike the right note with consumers. He even offers a possible script for an ad: "It's scary out there, but you don't have to be afraid. Call our 800 number for instant advice on what you should do now."

"Imagine how many customer leads someone would get out of that," Mr. Kneale said. "People will call because you're offering free advice. You can't afford to be silent if you're the rest of the pack. But you can't be seen as exploiting this."

Bank of America, which purchased Merrill Lynch, said it will continue to run ads. "Consumers are looking for brands they can trust," said Bank of America spokesman Joe Goode.

Weber Shandwick's Mr. Jensen said it's important that any marketing campaign not look as if it's trying to exploit the situation. "It can be viewed as opportunistic and in poor taste by other industry players and customers as well," he said. "I had that come up in a [recent conference] call, and that's how I answered it, and they agreed. I'm not saying no one should be opportunistic, but pursue that opportunity with caution."

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Contributing: Rupal Parekh, Beth Snyder Bulik
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