The markets tumbled, retirement savings dissolved, and home values evaporated as every principle and presumption about individual investing was called at least into question, and more likely to account. Now financial services firm Vanguard is promoting the answer: stop investing, and start Vanguarding.

It bought a four-page magazine spread to reveal this crucially useful insight (I saw mine in the latest issue of The New Yorker), and the story unfolds as follows:

  • Front page: A photo of a trading floor at some unidentified market, over which a headline reads "Stop just investing."
  • Inside two-page spread: A red kite floating against a blue sky, and the headline "Start Vanguarding."
  • Back page: A paragraph explaining that Vanguard puts its clients interests first, and that it provides its funds at-cost instead of low-cost. A punchline that reads "Are you investing or are you Vanguarding?" The prerequisite URL and 800 number follow.

I've been writing for some time now about the branding challenges (and opportunities) for financial services firms, as I don't think they can rely on the automatic return of investor credulity. People are are painfully aware that all of the "we've been in the business for 100 years" blather was likely nonsense and possibly a lie. Nobody was looking out for their interests, per se, and it took a mammoth infusion of government money to keep a broken system from collapsing entirely.

So I don't think the problem is that people need to stop investing, but rather for financial services firms to provide meaningful, relevant, and useful information on why they should start again. What's different today than a year ago (in terms of the behaviors of the firms) that warrants investors' trust?

Nothing, according to Vanguard's branding. It's more of the same-old idiocy, or at least it depends on its customers being idiots and believing it. Here are the three core areas in which it fails: 

  • Content: The world has shifted on its access and the most important thing Vanguard can tell us is that it wants to turn its name into a verb? Forget that making this leap is not going to happen (they must have realized that it takes lots of real behaviors to accomplish it); what would Vanguard accomplish if it worked? Even though the ad says so little, I walk away from thinking that it didn't tell me anything at all. 
  • Context: Hello, Great Recession anyone? No adult alive today isn't at least viscerally aware that something went wrong in the financial world, even if they have otherwise ignored it (see the start of this essay). You can't run an ad like this without acknowledging that fact or, by default, seeming somewhat disconnected from that reality by not doing so. It's like the Vanguard brand exists in some perfect vacuum; maybe the red kite is a symbol for its business, lost high in the sky of its own imagination?
  • Consumption: You’d think that the average New Yorker reader skews somewhat higher on income, education, and other demographics that matter to advertisers (not to mention a solid dose of intellectual pretension, etc.). So a glossy four-pager ad spread that says nothing other than trying to turn a proper noun into a verb is going to mean anything to said readers? Worse, if we presume that they have money to invest, would they be the types to make investing decisions based on a glossy, say-nothing ad? Vanguard might as well have left the pages blank.

The best defense for the ad is the standard claim that other ads in other media say other things, so that the collective impact is a nuanced brand position. All that meaningful, relevant, and useful detail that investors need arrives somewhere else, so it's OK to waste four pages in The New Yorker (and elsewhere) to say nothing at all.

Only nobody does that neat collecting or correlating anymore; brands are far more dependent on reality than any ethereal or idealized positioning that, like the red kite in the ad, floats above the truths revealed by content, context, and consumption. 

April Fool's, only the joke's on Vanguard.

Image source: Steve Wampler

Original Post:

Leave a Comment