Online Trading Company Ads Have Gotten a Lot More Serious

No more monkey business

Truck drivers buying islands with online trading fortunes, courtesy of Discover Brokerage Direct. Stuart, the office goofball, teaches his boss how to trade stocks on TD Ameritrade. And who can forget the E*Trade Super Bowl monkey shuffling through the cucaracha in a garage? When online trading companies took off at the height of the dot-com era, their ads captured the zeitgeist of the easy-money moment.

But ever since the financial meltdown and continuing market volatility took the humor out of investing, category players need to search for new messaging. Just over a week ago, TD Ameritrade went into review, splitting with Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, after the appointment of new CMO Denise Karkos in October. E*Trade’s chief marketer Liza Landsman moved her account to Ogilvy & Mather in July, just months into her job.

Clichés about the former testosterone-fueled day trader have been replaced by shell-shocked consumers, who, according to a Nationwide Financial survey taken last summer, fear investing more than losing their jobs or even dying.

“No one is in the mood to treat finances as a joke,” said SS+K founding partner Lenny Stern. “This category is looking for a new vocabulary [and] new reference points to be authentic. People feel wary and frustrated—mistreated by institutions—and are willing to switch to brands that will include them.”

That’s the financial services category in general, said Russel Wohlwerth, principal of consulting firm External View. “The postfinancial crisis added new marketing challenges. Many consumers remain disengaged. They don’t want to deal with money problems; they tend to tune out financial services advertising.”

That’s not surprising to John Thorpe, group brand strategy director at GS&P. “Money is the most intimate thing people have to deal with, and the category doesn’t really take that into consideration,” he said. “There’s a massive unreality I find weird.”

It’s different with niche online brokers, with more active customers. Online brokers’ earlier marketing was price-driven, emphasizing ease of trades, execution and tools. Now, marketers like TD Ameritrade try to get customers to use more services, such as long-term investment planning. Last month, for instance, TD Ameritrade broke an Olympics-themed campaign emphasizing IRAs. E*Trade, in the Super Bowl since 2008, recently said it would skip this year, exchanging a mass market outreach for a more targeted approach.

Russell Messner, a global managing director at O&M, said online trading companies’ repositioning follows changes in consumer behavior. “The idea of the self-directed investor or the advised investor is becoming passé, with a lot of people using a blended approach in managing money,” said Messner.


Liza Landsman

Moving from mass audience to targeted approach

Dancing monkey

E*Trade’s spot became a Super Bowl hit.

TD Ameritrade

Denise Karkos 

Now focused on getting customers to use more services, like IRAs

Unlikely pitchman

A hero to office geeks everywhere

Photo of Karkos: Kris Tamburello