A Year After Implosion, Merrill’s Bull Is Back

A year after the brand played a major role in a meltdown that prompted a  federal bailout and a worldwide economic downturn, Merrill Lynch and its bull are back, with a $20 million campaign offering consumers “help.”

Bank of America, Merrill Lynch’s new owner, is launching the campaign, themed “help2,” to reintroduce its newly acquired  Merrill Lynch Wealth Management group.

The latter is BofA’s brokerage and wealth management division, which it purchased as part of its rescue of Merrill Lynch last September. Print,TV and online ads feature the classic Merrill bull—a mascot that was first introduced in 1974. The target: affluent Americans. Research, however, showed that their  goals differed depending on age, which is why the campaign addresses different notions of help, said Claire Huang, head of marketing for BofA’s global wealth management, global banking and global markets units.

Younger consumers, for instance, were concerned about the economy’s impact on their finances, near- to-young boomers were preoccupied with retirement and older Americans were worried about inflation zapping their life’s savings, she said.

Hence, print ads that say “help2achieve,” “help2cherish,” “help2discover” and “help2begin.” As a marketing campaign, the superscript 2 refers to the one-on-one, personalized relationships financial advisors have with clients, their “exponentially better” advice and the combined distribution, scale and services offered by the two entities, Huang said. (The average Merrill Lynch client stays with his/her financial advisor for 13 years, she said.)

Merrill’s bull, “Dollar,” has also been updated. The mascot retains its classic blue coloring, in a new, white silhouette. There is also the BofA attribution below to reinforce the new relationship, Huang said.

(Interpublic Group’s Hill Holliday is the creative agency for the campaign. Starcom handles media buying duties.)

This week’s campaign marks the first time Dollar has been featured prominently in the ads. The mascot was not present in a summer campaign for the bank’s global corporate and investment banking business called Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

“The bull is alive and well,” and “He is on your side,” Huang quipped of Dollar’s return.

BofA is not the only bank to employ the “help” theme. In September, Wells Fargo ran an ad in BusinessWeek which read, “With you when you need help designing your future.”

Hill Holliday president Karen Kaplan said the financial services sector’s focus on the prevailing notion of “help,” especially in difficult times, isn’t surprising. 

In its research, the agency came across an idea called “customer advocacy,” which a Forrester Research survey defined as a concept in which consumers hold a generally better opinion of companies that act with the public’s interest in mind.

In keeping with that theme, the new campaign aims to convince consumers that banks aren’t just about the bottom line. In testing the ads with financial advisors and consumers, both groups found the idea of “help,” as portrayed in the campaign, to be more collaborative, Kaplan said. Financial advisors were seen as “not just dispensing advice…[but more of] I’m going to wheel my chair to the other side of the desk and sit with the client,” she said.

The campaign, though, comes at a time when the banking industry is plagued with troubles of its own. BofA, for instance, has been under fire for supposedly withholding information on bonuses paid by Merrill executives before shareholders approved of the deal.

And, it has yet to repay all of the $45 billion it received from emergency government funding. (Last week, its chief executive, Ken Lewis, also announced he’d be stepping down at the end of this year.)

As a result of these events, YouGov, BrandIndex’s daily measure of consumer brand perception, found Merrill’s brand index score to be -10.5, while JPMorgan and Wells Fargo were -7.2 and 1.2, respectively. (Scores were tallied Sept. 30, and the methodology derives from asking consumers about their perceptions of banks’ “quality,” “value,” “satisfaction” and “impression,” and range from 100 to -100.)

All of these efforts mark a new wave in bank marketing, said Ryan Alderman, an svp who heads up digital agency Razorfish’s financial services practice in New York. For the last 30 years, banks spent most of their time building “distribution, scale and efficiency,” but tough times calls for a return to the “business of branding” and a rekindled interest in the consumer, he said. And it’s not just marketing but “the little things,” such as a reduction on overdraft fees, which show consumers that banks truly care, he said.