Merrill Lynch spent the past year studying consumers to discover that paying for retirement is foremost on their minds, and will spend $20 million launching a new brand platform touting its local advisors' relationships with their clients. It's also going to shift money from TV and print advertising to media partnerships, baseball sponsorship and, of course, an iPad app.

Interestingly, some gurus note that Merrill and its fellow financial services providers have to do something other than say "trust us." John Mathes, a bank branding expert, said in Advertising Age: "I don't think it's credible. People don't really believe them. Because of all the bad press, many people are still shying away..."

Bad press? Merrill has a reality problem, not an image challenge:

  • The markets on which most of us depend for our retirement pretty much blew up over the past few years. None of us understand truly why it happened, and therefore we have no reasonable expectation that the markets will recover in any sustainable way. All we can do now is hope, which is a horrible financial strategy.
  • Worse, with all the bailouts and bonuses paid out, even the better educated among us have reason to suspect the system isn't altogether transparent or efficient. The rest of us worry that it's completely rigged against us.
  • Merrill doesn't really exist, or not like it used to. It blew up in late 2008 and Bank of America bought it for $50 billion -- whatever "it" constituted beyond lots of financial obligations it couldn't honor -- and only did so with almost $150 billion in U.S. government backup. When Bank of America's stock plunged 78% after announcing the deal, it effectively wiped out Merrill Lynch’s value entirely. Most of its leadership left after the deal closed.
  • So Merrill has no credibility. Zero. Aside from possessing the money to fund it, the new brand platform as described can't legitimately explain what's going on, give investors any substantive or believable reasons to believe what they're telling us, or prove that there's even a there there beyond a brand name.

It took them a year to come up with the idea that it should run ads about being a "trusted advisor" and do things on YouTube?

Here are three thought-starters on what it could do instead:

  • Acknowledge the 800 lb gorilla in the room. The days of branding in a vacuum are over. We all know what happened to our 401(k) accounts, so any financial services ads or social media campaigns that don't address this fact (or low-ball it with some inartful allusion to a "bumpy road," or whatever) are inauthentic. Merrill can't start the next conversation with investors until it acknowledges and either furthers or resolves the last one first.
  • Explain what's different now. Do you know what goes on behind those glass doors with the Merrill logo on them? I don't, and maybe none of us ever did, specifically, but we once believed that we knew what it and the markets did generally. Not so much anymore. So are today's "trusted advisors" any different than yesterday's, or are they in many instances the same fools who walked our life savings over a cliff? Merrill had to change after the merger with Bank of America. You mean there's nothing meaningful it can tell us?
  • Own the new reality. To pretend that investing -- in anything, from retirement to a home or college loan -- isn't different today than it was even a few years ago is to all but qualify as an idiot and/or a liar. We all hope things are going to return to the way they were, but we're cautious and worried. There must be different strategies, different regulatory and reporting requirements, new management tools and, most of all, new sets of understanding and expectations about how, when, and where to invest. Merrill could come clean on these topics and own the position of being the conduit between burned investors and the new reality of investing.

Do you think their new stuff is any more legitimate or useful than I do? I'd love to know why. Otherwise, let's throw some better ideas into the comments below and maybe Merrill's crack new media monitoring staff with catch them. The brand has probably already flushed its $20 million down the toilet, but there's nothing stopping Merrill from taking a smarter, more honest approach next time.

Original Post: