The world of financial markets was close to an aristocratic preserve. Its occupants were to capital what the "black nobility" were to the Pope: noble Roman families with prestigious ceremonial positions at the papal court and vast influence in the city beyond.
These princes of capitalism weren’t like the rest of us, grubby merchants struggling to make a living. These people came from good families. They had the benefit of good degrees, patrician manners, and the right connections. Most of all, they enjoyed a certain self confidence, and a quiet self regard.
Most of all, the princes of capitalism did not shill. After all, shill was shrill. Every gentleman and woman understood that the first law of status was sprezzatura (to conceal art with art, to conceal effort with grace). You might be "working at it." But you must never be seen to be "working at it."
If you have to ask, you can’t come in.
But things have changed. Now the capital markets live in a world that’s a lot like yours and mine. They have to ask. This means marketing.
And they have their work cut out for them. Most people still treat matters of money, capital, finance, the stock market, and even simple banking matters as if they were essential mystical or at least magical. The math makes it scary. What remains of the hauteur of the capital markets makes it intimidating.
But there is a mystery at the very heart of money. For most people, even sophisticated, well educated people, in a sensible world, money doesn’t make money, people do. Most were raised with a notion that value is created by an "honest day of labor." The idea that money makes money, this is insufficient narrative. Who’s the agent, we want to know. How can something make more of itself? (I know it sounds crazy. But then that’s what anthropology is for: unearthing things that on finer scrutiny are simply odd.)
Lots of the consumers of financial institutions practice "money avoidance." Once they set things up, they tend to leave them be. Leave to the expert. Even if the interest rate is ludicrous. Even if the financial products are completely wrong for them. Good news for the existing bank, mutual fund or credit card. Bad news for anyone who is trying to win new business.
But everyone is now trying. And the most trying try are those photos we see in the lobby of our local bank. Stock images of happy families, young, prosperous, sunny. Oi! This marketing gesture is designed to put a human face on capital, but, for my money, it just ends up making the enterprise look even more mythical and extraplanetary. I mean, who are these people?
And then you get the ad that appeared in the Wall Street Journal this morning. It reads "Put Your Lance Face on" and it shows Lance Armstrong head and shoulders, larger than life. The photo is over-lit so that we can see every pore on Mr. Armstrong’s face and Mr. Armstrong has an expression that is absolutely Martian. He looks like the human machine we know him to be.
We can see what American Century Investments was trying to do. Here’s what the ad says:
What does it mean to put your Lance face on? It means taking responsbility for your future. It means developing a plan for the most important goals in your life. It mean staying focused and determined in the face of challenges. When it comes to investing, it means the same thing. Lance makes every decision count. You can too. For more information, contact our financial advisor…
Not very subtle. Not by any means state of the art advertising. But a sincere effort to draw a comparison between Lance Armstrong and the kind of investor we can be if we work with American Century Investments.
The trouble is, and this is the strategic problem, it is really hard for any of us to accept the comparison. All of us know Lance Armstrong to be a kind of God. I mean, the guy recovers from cancer and wins the Tour de France. He wins the Tour de France over and over again. If there is a hero in our world, if there is a human who has assumed mythical proportions, it’s Lance Armstrong. The ad would like to transfer meaning (responsibility, focus, determination) from Lance to us, thanks to American Century Investments, but none of us is likely to find this plausible.
The trouble is, and this is the executional problem, the ad itself exacerbates the strategic issue by giving us a picture of Lance that confirms our worst suspicion: that he’s not like us, that all comparisons are preposterous. Lance is a Martian. We are not. (Well, I’m hoping I have a couple of Martian readers. You know who you are.)
I am sure my distinguished colleague in Toronto, Susan Abbott, a former banker and a gifted marketer, would have caught this marketing howler. I suspect that Pip Coburn and his remarkable team at Coburn Ventures would have thought their way out of it.
But a good deal of the rest of the capital markets are struggling to catch up to an elementary understanding of marketing. How they must stoop to conquer!
Anon. 2006. "Put Your Lance Face On." Full page ad for American Century Investments. Wall Street Journal. February 10, 2006, p. A9.