Parsing the symbolic logic of the Smith Barney campaign

Smithbarney_1 Smith Barney launched their "working wealth" campaign yesterday.  (To the right, a clipping from the homepage.)

I’ve written about marketing in the world of investment and wealth management before.  It is a wonderful thing to see an industry that previously would not "stoop to conquer" now actually addressing the consumer in a language he can understand. 

The industry is new to the game, so the results are uneven.  American Century Investments was, I think, wrong to use Lance Armstrong as a celebrity spokesperson.  The Citi ad that spoke of the "heart of new york" was not so much wrong as muddled.  On the other hand, recent Charles Schwab work has been exemplary.  I particularly like the ad that reads, "owning a house worth a million bucks is not a retirement plan." 

It is a pleasure to report that the SmithBarney campaign is a superb piece of consumer centricity.  It addresses the barrier in place: the fact that most consumers fail to fail to how money makes money.  Now, I know this complete confounds the financial industry. "What’s not to get?" they want to know.  But that is the point of consumer-centricity.  It doesn’t matter what we think.  It matters what the consumer thinks, and the further they are from our standard, the harder we have to work, the more due ethnographic diligence we must exercise. 

Consumers believe that money comes from a pay check.  They work hard. Someone pays them.  Now they have money.  Yes, they grasp the idea of "interest."  Yes, they understand, roughly, how the stock market works.  But the idea that this industry is all about and only about, money, this is as counter intuitive as a "virgin birth."  Money has to come from somewhere.  How can it  come, as if immaculate conceived, from other money. 

For the average consumer there is something impenetrable about financial planning.  It’s a mystery of the old fashioned kind, not something you can clear up with a flashlight and a basset hound.  No, this is one of those imponderables of the human condition, one of those things we will just never understand. 

And what a barrier this becomes for the financial industry when it finally decides to market to these consumers.  How does the consumer calculate risk in a decision making situation such as this?   Well, he just doesn’t, that’s all.  He practices avoidance.  This feels like the rational thing to do.  Marketing comes late to the game, and it must move mountains.

Oh, there is one thing that the consumer understands perfectly well: the moment he sits down with a financial adviser, he’s going to look like a rube and a dope.  Here’s another reason to practice avoidance.

What to do?  How to speak to a consumer in this frame of mind?  The Working Wealth is a great place to start.  If the Charles Schwab campaign demonstrated a knowledge of what the consumer thinks, this one shows us how the consumer thinks. 

The notion of "working wealth" complete with gears has an appealing literalism.  The first few lines of the body copy:

"Earn your first dollar by your labors.  Get up early, work late.  Get up the next day and do it again.  Keep doing it, even after the dollars start adding up."

Exactly on target.  Start with the what the consumer is thinking.

The campaign then proposes an equation, that at Smith Barney, capital works the way you do.  Hence the headline: "I am working wealth."  This is classic metaphor.  It allows the consumer to understand the unknown part of the metaphor equation (capital) with what they know about the known part of the equation (their working lives.)

Then Smith Barney invites the consumer think of himself as someone who has control of this process.  ("I am working wealth.")  Some part of their work-a-day world is a place of special control and competence for them.  Now the equation says, hey, what you know about your domain of competence, apply that to the way Smith Barney will allow you to manage your wealth.

In the symbolic logic of this ad, we step the consumer from where he is (capital comes from a paycheck) into a moment of identification (capital works the way the consumer works) into a proposition and a promise of control (I am working wealth.)  From the old world of capital to the new world of capital with a couple of phrases and around 100 words.   This is exemplary meaning management.   

The agency responsible for this exemplary work is Hill Holliday New York.  The planner was Lesley Bielby (now of Hill Holliday Boston).  The Executive Creative Director was Alon Shoval, who, with Charles Veprek, served as copywriter and, with Victor Anselmi, as Art Director.    



Anon.  2006.  I am working wealth.  Full page ad for Smith Barney. Wall Street Journal. October 31, 2006, p. A7.

For the Smith Barney "I am working wealth" website, here.

McCracken, Grant.  2006.  Marketing the Capital Markets.  This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  February 10, 2006. here

McCracken, Grant. 2006.  Marketing the Capital Markets II.  This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  February 14, 2006.  here

McCracken, Grant.  2006.  Marketing Financial markets: Schwab Triumph. The Blog sits at the intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  March 1, 2006.  here.


Pip Coburn, Coburn Ventures

Nick Hahn, Vivaldi Partners

Olivier Blanchard, Corante

7 thoughts on “Parsing the symbolic logic of the Smith Barney campaign

  1. Baba

    Grant — thanks for the positive comments. The campaign was done by the New York office of Hill Holliday. The planner on the case was Lesley Bielby, who is now planning director at Hill Holliday Boston.

  2. gugoda

    A Parson’s egg (english ovo-religious colloquialism..)

    Matters of agreement
    1. The investment world has historically represented something of a ‘private club’ closed except to those ‘in the know’ and culturally and financially elite.

    2. The industry has for the most part been self-indulgent and focused on itself rather than being ‘consumer centric’ in its marketing communications

    3. The use of celebrities is a risky one: the alternative to aspiration is alienation when the group of people to be influenced are confronted with someone who by his/her nature they can’t identify with

    Matters of disagreement

    Your analysis and commentary is based on the average consumer. I believe this to be in error.

    1. Economically, it is not viable for investment companies to profitably manage the accounts of people with less than $250,000 in liquid assets (not net worth tied up in real estate for example). This means that investment campaigns like Smith Barney are decidedly not pursuing an average, mass market customer, indeed they are after an elite group, although far more emancipated that earlier generations.

    2. While for ‘the average consumer there is something impenetrable about financial planning’ this relationship with the category cannot be extended or presumed for the ‘affluent investors’ (although the segment goes by different names). Indeed, this group while not professing to be experts themselves are very self-directed and involved in financial matters and decision making. This group is not one to be intimidated by their financial planner, and is a proactive and demanding client that challenges decisions and advice and does not delegate management.

    3. While this group may not have any better insight into the mystery of ‘how money makes money’ I would posit that this does not represent an insufficient narrative because their orientation is very different from the average consumer. They don’t need to know how of money multiplies because they don’t trust that it will: they actively engage in behaviors that monitor progress in their accumulation of funds or in meeting their ‘life goals’ (as is the category-speak in vogue lately).

    4. The need to understand ‘how things work’ also feels over-stated: in the modern consumption age we are surrounded by and rely on goods in our lives for which we haven’t the foggiest idea how they work, nor how to fix them if they go wrong. A coffee maker, watch, car and the laptop this is being written on are just a few examples. This does not result in angst or avoidance.

  3. Brand Pimp

    This is a great overview of the campaign. You have reversed-engineered the insights, approach etc and handed out credit where credit is due.

    Would you be surprised to learn that the campaign is not targeted at the “average” consumer?

    Which brings me to my next question. If the campaign was not created to reach the average consumer, but rather it was created to reach a much more sophisticated, self-directed, wealthy investor, would you still refer to this as “exemplary work”?

  4. Grant

    Brand Pimp, that’s a really good question, and I guess if there is a different target I would have a different answer. But I would still like what they have done here a lot. Thanks for a thought provoking question! Best, Grant

  5. Loraine

    Previous comments are correct: Smith Barney as a firm is targeting millionaires for sophisticated wealth management, not the average investor. That is their stated corporate strategy, as any of their 13,000 financial advisors will attest. Advisors need investors with minimum assets of $500K, ideally a few million. So, in my opinion, the campaign is off strategy. Everything about it says average investor.

  6. Alon Shoval

    Creative Team Credits:

    Copywriter: Alon Shoval, Charles Veprek
    Art Director: Alon Shoval, Victor Anselmi

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