TD Ameritrade’s CMO Built a New Brand Image Based on Confidence and Convenience

Adweek’s 2016 Brand Genius winner for financial services

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Three years ago, when Denise Karkos was named CMO at TD Ameritrade, she had her work cut out for her. Her task: make the stodgy and often-character-free financial services industry relatable—even fun—to Americans.

Such a feat would require a departure from how brokerages usually advertise. Not only is talking about online trading boring to most people, it risks conjuring memories of the Wall Street meltdown of 2008 and the recession it unleashed. But with years of experience at creative shops including Hill Holliday and The Via Group, Karkos knew a way around those pitfalls, and she switched up the brand's playbook to bring data and creative together.

"It's about art and science being inextricably linked," Karkos explains. "My team really believes in the fact that you need both the analytics and the brand-purpose side, and that you can't have one over the other in today's marketing environment. Analytics will take you into places with targeting and media, but if you don't know what you stand for, then that's all wasted."

TD Ameritrade has come a long way since opening its doors in Omaha, Neb., in 1975. In 1988, it pioneered telephone-based trading, allowing investors to punch buttons on a handset to buy and sell more quickly. Under Karkos, the brand has pushed further into mobile and digital investing with products enabling consumers to manage investments in real time from their laptops and smartphones.

To bring the marketing up to speed, Karkos' first job was to add analytic-minded staffers and hire a new agency. Her goal was to position TD Ameritrade as a transparent, optimistic partner investors could count on for the long haul. "Trust," Karkos admits, "is the biggest problem in our category."

Robert Ascroft

Starting with the introduction of the tagline "You got this" in 2014, Karkos inserted an unexpected emotion into TD Ameritrade's marketing: confidence. This year, the company launched a new series of ads under the banner "The best returns aren't just measured in dollars." By stressing quality of life over money, TD Ameritrade signaled its willingness to break with banking convention.

"All of the work is much more emotional than I think you see across financial services and online brokerages," says Joe Maglio, managing director at Havas Worldwide in New York. "The latest thing that we've been working through is the goal to grow your portfolio. Your portfolio is a means to an end, and we're more interested in the end."

That idea, coupled with Karkos' obsession with data, convinced TD Ameritrade to sign Indianapolis Colts star quarterback Andrew Luck as its spokesman last year. "The NFL has the largest reach of our target audience than all the other leagues combined," the marketing chief explains.

But it was far more than the typical sponsorship deal. Karkos led the development of a cognitive-marketing effort using Watson, IBM's famed supercomputer. It ferreted out sports fans who were talking about their teams on social media, who were then entered into a contest to win Super Bowl tickets. Watson's algorithm crunched social stats about fans' posts to determine how confident they were that their teams would win a matchup. The data was then used to accurately predict that the Denver Broncos would win Super Bowl 50, despite being the underdog going into the game.

That left-brain/right-brain thinking is critical to how the CMO sees her brand honing its digital chops in the coming years. "She's very good at evaluating a plethora of ideas," Maglio says of Karkos, "and she will always take the time to consider something that may be more on the cutting edge than other CMOs will."

The strategy appears to be paying off. In Q2, TD Ameritrade reported that it grew new net client assets by 16 percent—or $14 billion—year over year.

"We have very strong roots in analytics and our brand has moved the needle," Karkos says. "I want to take it to the next level."

Check out all of Adweek's 2016 Brand Genius winners.

This story first appeared in the October 24, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.

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@laurenjohnson Lauren Johnson is a senior technology editor for Adweek, where she specializes in covering mobile, social platforms and emerging tech.