Marketing the capital markets

23wallThe office of J.P. Morgan and Company at 23 Wall Street is  luxurious but unmarked.  The implicit message: "If you have to ask, you can’t come in."

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.

5 thoughts on “Marketing the capital markets

  1. Pingback: Customer Experience Crossroads

  2. Gem Hudson

    But capitalism is a universal law. Who can make what work? And do not remind me of any of those corporate professionals. The “Be more evolved” crowd. They thought so but are they really so the Zork Borks the galatic controler of the universe with a trade deficit problem?

  3. Auto

    but the ad doesn’t want us to identify too closely with lance. because if we did, if we started to believe we had his abilities, then why would we need to pay some cheesy mutual fund to do for us what we could easily do on our own?

    the “make every decision count” line means to me exactly what you say in your set-up upthread: that money is mysterious and ordinary folks have no business trying to keep up with the pros.

    so entrust them your savings, let them work their magic, but please please please, no matter how poor their performance, don’t think you could have done better with an index fund.

  4. Steve Portigal

    I saw the ad in the NYT (but didn’t read closely), and I immediately thought of his recently ended relationship with Sheryl Crow, and here he is, back out there, keeping a stiff upper lip, showing his face, dealing with the emotional pain that is inside.

    It was a fleeting thought, but that was my association.

    Reminds me of a long-time client in the music gear business, an industry that thrives on endorsements from the touring pros to sell to the much larger world of semi-amateur-weekender-non-gigging-garage-players, and how they were challenged by the category of folks – musicians – they had to sign up with, given that you could see those people turn around one day and be druggies, molesters, rapists, or who knows what.

    Hey, look at what’s going on with Gretzky right now – there’s an untarnished brand for a very very long time. Does anyone remember Pro-Stars cereal? I was back in high school eating that stuff – long long time ago.

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