Remote control

The biggest driver of digital advice over the next five years will be the conversion of clients from traditional brokerage relationships to robo-advisors. That’s what Cerulli Associates reports in its 2018 retail investor survey that found a whopping 59% of investors aware of not a single digital-advice platform of the 10 presented in the questionnaire.

Meanwhile, large financial services firms continue running expensive television advertising campaigns aimed at further expanding their global brand awareness.

The companies, however, are wasting their money trying to beef up awareness, says Ken Schmidt, former Harley-Davidson communications director, who helped turn around the motorcycle maker when it was near death. “What the financial firms don’t need is awareness — what they need is preference. They clearly need to be engaging at a different level from what the other firms are doing.”

Whether companies are attracting new clients via TV commercials, only proprietary metrics will reveal.

ThinkAdvisor recently asked Schmidt and other marketing experts to share their views on firms’ current TV ads.

Fisher Investments’ commercials seem ever-present on TV — and on radio and on the internet, too. Some commercials depict a client physically leaving their existing money manager for Fisher, which “tailors portfolios to your goals and needs … and calls regularly,” so intones a voice-over.

“Ken Fisher is often called ‘The King of Marketing,’” says Marion Asnes, president of Idea Refinery, which creates marketing strategy and custom content from Westchester, New York. “He’s the only person who’s been able to bring the concept of fiduciary to life without saying the unpronounceable, incomprehensible F-word.”

Charles Schwab’s “Techy” ads featuring an Alexa-like device and a frustrated FA trying to prevent a client from moving to Schwab, also stands out from the pack, according to Schmidt, author of “Make Some Noise: The Unconventional Road to Dominance “ (Simon and Schuster-Nov.2018.) and who is based near Washington, D.C.

“Schwab is saying, it’s not who we are — it’s who we aren’t,” Schmidt says. “They use a little bit of humor but also attack the primary fear people have of the financial services business — that these guys are all out for money, and it’s more about them than about [clients].”

At this point of uncertainty and wild market swings, firms are hoping the ads will reassure investors. But it is critical that each commercial message resonates with the target audience. And, certainly, because a decade after the financial crisis, folks remain skeptical about Wall Street, the messages need to be credible.

“The most effective commercials appeal to people’s dreams and aspirations,” says Marie Swift, president and CEO of Impact Communications, a Kansas City, Kansas-based marketing firm serving advisors and financial services firms. “The best elements play to their emotions without looking like they’re trying to be manipulative. They have to be a real story, not one that feels contrived or inauthentic.”

Sometimes advertisers attempt to reach two birds with one stone, as it were. For instance, with at least one Fidelity ad, “The message is for boomers, but the music — ’70s and ’80s rock — is for Gen X people in their 50s,” Asnes remarks. “Now the retirement industry is going after their money, too.”

“Trust us” is what the firms try their utmost to convey in TV ads — but success in concept and execution vary, according to the experts.

A Wells Fargo commercial that apologizes for the bank’s scandalous behavior, then says you can trust them again, garners a low grade.

“Why should we trust you now?” Swift comments. “Did you not hold yourself accountable before? The proof is in the pudding: Let’s see if you’re trustworthy now. Current news about the company doesn’t look that way.”

Just so, says Asnes: “I don’t believe the Wells Fargo ‘We’re sorry’ ads. First clean up your house! Then put those ads out.”

Providing nuts-and-bolts information about the firm’s services seems a good bet. For example, a Fidelity ad talks about offering “straightforward advice, tailored investment recommendation … and tax-efficient investing strategies.”

“Anything that gives you information and [implies] that you’re smart enough to make your own decisions is helpful — instead of [just dishing out] marketing slime,” Swift says.

One corporate-image ad singled out by the experts as trust-generating is from Bank of America. In fewer than 60 seconds, CEO Brian Moynihan talks about giving customers “the power” to attain what they desire, such as owning a home. That the voice-over belongs to B of A’s chief executive isn’t revealed till the very end.

An Edward Jones commercial showing an Asian woman happily telling her African-American financial advisor she’s had an offer to sell her business and now wants to retire early, “inspires the viewer to think, ‘If she can do it, I can do it,’” Swift says. And “the company seems more interested in opening the door to conversation than making a sale.”

But TV commercials are subjective in nature. The same ad can be seen in a favorable light by one person but hated by another — whether or not they’re experts.

Asnes thinks the Schwab “Techy” commercial is “funny and kind of stupid. It’s aimed at older people with brokerage accounts who are more suspicious of technology than younger ones. It works real hard to say, ‘You can trust us’; but it’s really just competing on price. It’s more of a bargain hunter’s trustworthiness than ‘Put your life in our hands,’” she says.

Brighthouse Financial’s annuities ad showing a middle-aged couple strolling through a vineyard cues viewers “to put their guard up that a sales pitch is coming,” according to Swift, who experiences an Edward Jones commercial with a client taking a random phone call from his FA in a busy airport “totally unbelievable and contrived.”

Because of “the industry’s reputation right now, [many] people hesitate to meet with an advisor,” Schmidt insists. “There’s a barrier: fear or lack of understanding or stereotypes or the attitude: ‘They’re going to take advantage of me.’ You can’t advertise or promote your way out of that.”

In creating TV ads, efforts to show racial, ethnic and gender diversity clearly are on the right track, but the jury may be out as to how well the ads attract prospects. For instance, a TD Ameritrade commercial with a newlywed, lovey-dovey African-American couple and their pet parrot “may make you look at the screen longer, but what do you remember the next day?” comments Schmidt. “You need a tangible call to action.”

Are celebrities who front a firm effective in selling it? All depends on the bold-faced name.

“Viewers have to be able to make an immediate connection between the celebrity and the product,” Schmidt says. “What does Matt Damon [in Bank of America commercials] know about investments or retirement?”

Though the procession of TV ads aimed at creating awareness continues apace, “The battle is going to be won on the street — by advisors building their businesses and by the people they serve telling others about them,” Schmidt forecasts. “But if that doesn’t [happen] in 15 or 20 years, there aren’t going to be a lot of [traditional] financial services firms and advisors left standing. People will think: ‘What do I need people for when I can get a robo-advisor’?”

— Related on ThinkAdvisor: