Who knew, financially speaking, that I'm a clean-shaven, middle-aged Asian man with a bit of an anger problem?
At least, that's how closely I identified with the man while watching one of the hypnotically liquid-looking spots in this new Charles Schwab campaign, the first from Euro RSCG. In his aggravation with brokerage firms and their promises and pricing, the confused working stiff in the striped golf shirt seemed to be speaking for me.
But, speaking of frustration, first a little background: Euro is the third agency to have the account in six years—a time of shakeout and turmoil in financial services, to be sure, and also a tough time for Schwab (the founder himself left and came back in that period). Last week, the company reported its largest (and one of its first) quarterly profits since the dot-com-bubble days.
This new work is a total change in look and tone. Indeed, what we've got here is a brand repositioning so complete that it even includes changing the founder's given name. Wouldn't it seem a little late in Schwab's career to undergo an extreme name makeover? As a snappy monosyllable, "Chuck" does have an efficient and sporty ring to it, like a tennis pro from the '70s. But whoever heard of calling the Charles Schwab guy Chuck? Apparently, everyone at the company feels free to do so, and they also tend to quote ole chairman Chuck rather liberally—and it seems the marketing guys refer to him as Chuck nonstop. (I guess the phrase "Stump the Schwab" was already taken by ESPN.)
The line "Talk to Chuck" is the centerpiece of the campaign, and it works phonically, with that rat-a-tat-tat single-syllable, clipped-final-k action; suddenly, a distant rich guy becomes our best friend. The graphic device of putting "Talk to Chuck" in a cartoon talk bubble is also quite clever—the all-caps, sans-serif typeface has a modern, jazzy, JetBlue-ish look to it. The arrow at the bottom of the bubble (which is actually a square within a square, like an old-style TV, but never mind) points to the Charles in the company logo; the first name is all lowercase italics, the Schwab is all uppercase and bold. I like the playful use of typography.
And the voice of the TV spots comes straight out of the print: One ad says, "I'm a hundred thousandaire. Why am I paying commissions like a multimillionaire?" Another says, "Want a great stock tip? Don't listen to stock tips."
Still, we're bombarded with clever, nicely designed ads for financial companies all the time, and they become so much wallpaper—even Fidelity, which tries to make Paul McCartney your average boomer. (Say it ain't so, Paul!) Or they become annoying—especially the Ameritrade stuff, which is nicely crafted but nakedly panders to boomers' already bloated sense of self-importance. "You challenged everything that came before you." (Yes, and you will challenge the Social Security system and leave nothin' for the youngins.)
Back to Schwab. Why is the TV so breakthrough? For starters, had it just shown actors talking to some off-camera interviewer, spouting from scripts, no matter how well-acted or -directed, it'd be more of the usual somber blah blah—uninteresting and entirely forgettable. But somehow, filming those quasi-whiny testimonials and then applying some software-animation process over it (the work of a guy named Bob Sabiston, who introduced the technique in the 2001 film Waking Life) heightens everything. In a weird way, one fake layer makes everything real, almost hyperhuman. The result feels like ultimate animation for the HDTV age, so fluid that it's like looking at the underside of a plasma screen. Suddenly, these guys have amazingly expressive faces (especially around the chins and eyebrows), and their worlds (and words) become permeable, inhabitable. They come off as visually compelling everymen—one goateed guy saying that he was making the usual small talk with his broker, how the kids are, etc., and he finally realized that he was really discussing the brokers' kids' future, not his own. The last time I felt a financial-services spot hit so close to home was one of the first "real life" campaigns ever—Bill Heater's work for John Hancock.
Actually, the last time I spoke to my Merrill Lynch broker, he didn't even bother with the small talk about the family—it was a couple of years ago, and he was telling me he wanted to put me in some Latin American bonds that he had just bought for his mother. I'm not making this up. So I laugh whenever I see the spots with the broker making the toast at his client's daughter's wedding or nestling in a sand dune, dreaming about a beach house with his would-be retirees.
The first four spots feature men, but apparently there are some spots with women in the works. While "Dog" (about knowing when to call it quits on a loser stock) also expresses my exact frustration and lethargy, it's the only one I didn't find visually attractive. Although he's a very familiar type, the guy has lots of curly black hair, black glasses and, in this animation process, a 5 o'clock shadow that becomes such an unbroken block of gray that it's more like Fred Flintstone's.
Still, the technique is a world away from morning cartoons, and the copy is realistic and fitting. With all that's gone down since the dot-com days, it's interesting that the campaign literally puts Chuck back in the bubble, but also back in control.
Executive creative director
Israel Garber, Michael Lee