Merrill Lynch Asks Jittery Boomers to Vent Via Text

Texting campaigns have usually been designed with younger consumers in mind, but now Bank of America’s Merrill Lynch Wealth Management unit is planning one aimed at jittery boomers looking to retire.

The campaign, which builds on a push the unit started in October to reintroduce the Merrill Lynch brand under its new owner, puts a new spin on the classic fill-in-the-sentence game, à la MadLibs.

Print ads show consumers in the 50-plus age group holding up placards that read: “help2 retire.” A blank box appears underneath, along suggested words like “problems,” “cold feet” and “guesswork.” In March, a billboard from the campaign is set to debut in Times Square, where viewers can text in their own answers. (A rep for the company said that there will be a lag between when the answers are sent and when they show up on the screen so objectionable content can be screened out.)

The rep added that although the $20 million campaign breaking this week will begin with TV and print, there will be an interactive component as well in which consumers can add in their own thoughts about things (other than themselves) they wish would retire.

Stereotypical ads for the category often show attractive older couples on the beach and emphasize the idyllic golden years. But these ads (via Hill, Holliday, Boston) draw upon new research that shows recession-addled consumers have shifted priorities—specifically from the future to today. “In this industry, everybody [most always] talks about the future and when you retire,” said Claire Huang, head of marketing for the unit. “We’re talking about now…about the hurdles that people have.” Huang explained that Merrill Lynch was approaching the topic from both a rational and an emotional standpoint.

Huang added that the idea behind the campaign was to position the brand as an ally to consumers who are confused about various aspects of retirement, including the amount of money they’ll need to retire comfortably. But, as the economy has changed, Merrill’s research has found that consumers’ basic conception of retirement has shifted.

“It’s not just about aspiring to get a second home in a warm location,” said Aimee DeCamillo, head of personal retirement for Merrill Lynch Wealth Management. “It’s about spending more time with your family and friends and relieving the anxiety around the guesswork that so many people are feeling.”

The company’s research suggests that consumers are actually following through on such sentiment. A survey in September showed that 37 percent of respondents—a historically high number—were delaying their retirements. But by December, the number fell to 29 percent. DeCamillo interpreted that as a sign that consumers are downsizing their lifestyles to make sure they can retire.

The campaign, aimed at consumers with more than $250,000 in investable assets, doesn’t just aim to take advantage of the graying baby boomer market. It also is designed to reintroduce Merrill Lynch to the investment community. That won’t be easy. The name still conjures memories of a $45 billion government bailout and lingering allegations that Merrill execs received huge bonuses despite the aid.

Data from YouGov’s BrandIndex, which polls 5,000 consumers a day about their perception of brands, shows that Bank of America has been battling a negative perception; its score in November was -23, indicating moderate mistrust. (A score of zero means the brand is viewed neutrally and a score of -100 or +100 means the brand is viewed completely positively or negatively.) Merrill Lynch now has a score around -7, which is actually an improvement from a low of -34 last year.

Those numbers came despite fairly high ad spends for both brands. Merrill Lynch spent $22 million measured media for the first 11 months of 2009 and BofA spent $239 million, per the Nielsen Co. Those numbers do not include online advertising.