It was a daunting task for any ad agency copywriter. In the last 10 days of the life of Washington Mutual — Sept. 15 to Sept. 25 — terrified customers withdrew $17 billion in deposits from the failing savings and loan, which federal regulators then took over and sold to JPMorgan Chase for $1.9 billion.
How, then, to create a campaign that would project confidence in an institution that will be remembered as having suffered the largest bank failure of its time? Humor, decided the two banks’ agencies, which worked together on ads to promote the fire sale — er, merger.
“We love Chase,” reads the headline of an ad for Washington Mutual. “And not just because they have a trillion dollars.” (The Washington Mutual name will remain on those branches for the time being, a Chase spokesman said, but will be replaced by the Chase name in a year or two.)
The same challenge is playing out in the marketing department of virtually every financial institution. As the stock market swoons, investors are watching their paper losses mount and their retirement accounts dwindle. As the most trusted names in banking and brokerage have fallen like dominoes — despite reassurances from top executives that nothing was wrong — what message or slogan could possibly reassure a jittery public?
“This is not the time for keeping to the course,” said Gary M. Stibel, chief executive at the New England Consulting Group in Westport, Conn., which is starting a practice devoted to financial crisis management. “The ads should tell people with money: ‘There is every reason to worry. That’s why we’re here.’ ”
For Washington Mutual, the important message was the happy new marriage to JPMorgan Chase, which provided a handsome dowry. “WaMu & Chase. Safe & secure,” said one ad.
The ads were necessary, said a spokesman for JPMorgan Chase in Chicago, Thomas A. Kelly, to help stanch the flood of deposits from WaMu — and they worked.
“There was radio, print, Internet, fliers in banks, all part of saying, ‘You’re O.K.,’ ” Mr. Kelly said last week, adding: “And we really think we got that message across. On Tuesday and Wednesday, we had positive deposit inflows into WaMu.”
The WaMu agency — TBWA/Chiat/Day in Playa del Rey, Calif., part of the TBWA Worldwide division of the Omnicom Group — and the JPMorgan Chase agency — McGarryBowen in New York — are collaborating on the campaign. Appropriately, the tagline is: “WaMu, now part of Chase.”
Commercial banks are only one place where consumers have been voting with their dollars, moving their money to what they perceive as safer investments. Among the beneficiaries have been money market funds that invest in government securities.
“The government funds have been growing by leaps and bounds,” said Connie Bugbee, managing editor at iMoneyNet in Westborough, Mass., a research firm. That has come at the expense of what are called prime money funds, she added, which invest in areas outside of government.
Similarly, Hewitt Associates in Lincolnshire, Ill., which tracks the movement of money in 401(k) accounts, reported that on Sept. 29, the day the Dow Jones average plunged 777.68 points, so-called stable value funds — another historically safer option — received the largest inflows of transfers; international funds suffered the largest outflows.
In advertising, many financial institutions are racing to reassure consumers with soothing messages — that focus on important “S” words: strength, safety, stability, security.
“There is a safe and smart place to put your money,” ads for Commerce Bank tell newspaper readers.
Simultaneously, some institutions are continuing to communicate as if the recent upheavals had not happened. Ads for Discover Financial Services, for instance, try to coax consumers to sign up for yet another credit card, offering enticements like free balance transfers.
Just as bad as no new message, said Mr. Stibel of the New England Consulting Group, is the wrong message, as when “the C.E.O. writes a letter that ‘everything’s O.K., not to worry, we’re in great shape.’ ”
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“That’s an indication everything isn’t O.K.,” he added.
Mr. Stibel praised ads for Charles Schwab, the discount brokerage firm. They have included open letters from Charles R. Schwab, the chairman, outlining in plain language his perspective on market conditions.
“The current environment for investors is in many ways unprecedented and clearly unsettling,” the text of the letter begins on the Web site schwab.com.
“Is it a tough environment? Yes,” the letter continues. “Is it a time to be rash? No.”
The straight talk is the right approach, said Andrew Benett, chief executive of Euro RSCG Worldwide in New York, a unit of Havas that is the Schwab creative agency, because “everyone knows how dire the situation is.” “What brands need to do to be successful is to be honest, to have a lot of humility,” he added. “The consumer has very little tolerance of anything else.”
The campaign featuring Mr. Schwab is running in addition to Schwab’s regular ads.
“As we’ve seen anxiety on the part of investors increase,” said Rebecca Saeger, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at the Charles Schwab Corporation in San Francisco, “we’ve reached out to our own clients, reminding them we’re here for guidance and are taking a leadership voice to help individual investors.”
“It’s hard to be reassuring when nobody knows how it will all pan out,” she added, “but the feedback has been very positive.”
"The proper tone between being informative and being alarmist"
Ms. Saeger demurred at describing customer behavior since the ads began, citing rules against discussing material matters before Schwab reports its third-quarter results. However, “we’ve seen a tremendous increase in calls to call centers, visits to branches, visits to the Web site,” she added, and “a ton of interest in more conservative investment options.”
In the same vein, Bank of America decided to alter its advertising, said a spokesman in Boston, Joseph L. Goode, to “promote our various savings options like our risk-free C.D.’s and high-yield C.D.’s.”
Ads for Bank of America by BBDO Worldwide in New York, part of Omnicom, carry headlines like “A new opportunity to bank with confidence, security and a higher interest rate.”
Asked about results, Mr. Goode replied, “Like a lot of large banks, we’ve seen a flight to quality, an increase on the deposit side of our house.”
So far, Bank of America has not run ads about its acquisition of Merrill Lynch.
Of course, it is not easy for companies to shift marketing gears so quickly. “The situation is so fluid, it’s hard to figure out what message to put out today that would be relevant tomorrow morning,” said Matthew Harrington, United States chief executive at the Edelman public relations agency in New York, part of Daniel J. Edelman Inc.
In many instances, “I just don’t think they’ve been hitting the right note,” Mr. Harrington said of the financial marketers, referring to those “that say, ‘Believe in us’ without providing data explaining why” or “that say, ‘We have all the answers,’ which I’m not sure is credible given all the wreckage.”
“It’s more comforting for consumers to be treated candidly: ‘We’re in uncharted waters. We’re doing our best. We want to hear your questions. We’re here to help you,’ ” he added. “You gain a lot of credibility.”
Even the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which has found itself in an uncomfortable spotlight lately, is trying to project the right image. Last month Suze Orman, the personal finance writer and television personality, began appearing in a public service campaign for the agency, which regulates banks and insures deposits. The campaign, by the Washington office of Porter Novelli, an Omnicom agency, includes a Web site (myfdicinsurance.gov) where consumers can calculate the protection on their accounts.
“We wanted to strike the proper tone between being informative and being alarmist,” said Andrew Gray, public affairs director at the F.D.I.C. “We certainly didn’t want to scare anyone.”
That approach makes sense to Rob Scalea, president and chief executive at Brouillard in New York, an agency owned by the WPP Group.
“People are responding in an acute way” to events, Mr. Scalea said, comparing it to the reaction after 9/11.
“There are companies that consumers are looking to,” he added. “It’s appropriate for them to stand up and be leaders.”