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A Strategic Approach to Financial Services Advertising

The year was 1930 and Sears ran a daring ad favorably comparing its own line of tires to eight national brands. The ad not only created a stir, but markedly increased Sear’s tire sales. Firestone prepared a counteroffensive ad that created such a controversy about “business ethics” and “good taste” that many newspapers, including those in New York and Chicago, refused to run it. The controversy subsided, however, and by 1932 Plymouth was able to run an ad entitled “Look At All Three” that effectively depicted Plymouth’s superiority over Chevrolet and Ford. As a result, Plymouth’s sales more than doubled over the ensuing six months—and comparative advertising was born.

Over the years, comparative advertising has repeatedly proven its impact and effectiveness. These tactics have delivered significant gains in market share for such firms as Pepsi (over Coca-Cola), Burger King (over McDonald’s), Tylenol (over aspirin), Visa (over American Express), Hewlett-Packard (over IBM) and AT&T (over MCI). Reviewing almost 80 years of comparative advertising experience, it is interesting to reflect on some of the lessons learned from those who have done it well and those who have tripped over their own shoelaces.

Ads That Try Harder

The most successful comparison ads not only positively position the advertiser, but also reposition their competitors in a less favorable light. A classic example is the Avis “We Try Harder” campaign. Avis claimed that their second-place position required them to “try harder” by delivering extraordinary customer service. Not only did the campaign extol Avis, it also took a solid swipe at Hertz. The implication was that the undeniable industry leader was complacent and, as a result, took their customers for granted. Nice going Avis!

These ads generated significant customer recognition and marketplace visibility. By the time Hertz responded with its own version of comparative advertising, Avis had enhanced its industry position and gained considerable market share.

As Hertz learned the hard way, a strong and immediate “fight fire with fire” response is the best defense for victims of comparative advertising. With strong response advertising, responders can hopefully level the playing field by providing convincing clarifications and presenting their products/services in a much more favorable light. Response advertising must, however, be carefully developed and implemented to avoid creating a negative reaction. Defensive, unconvincing or ill-conceived response ads can actually increase the credibility of the original attack ads by calling attention to the comparison and failing to counter the points of concern.

Financial Services Applications

The financial services industry provides some high visibility examples of comparative advertising, some more successful than others. Vanguard, for example, has effectively used comparative advertising to establish itself as the low cost provider of mutual fund management services in a highly developed niche market.

Schwab, on the other hand, attempted to differentiate itself from the competition with an advertising campaign that extolled its integrity. Unfortunately, Schwab’s reach for the moral high ground was executed with the finesse of a playground bully. The attempt to besmirch its competitors’ ethics by accusing them, for example, of “putting lipstick on the pig” to make a sale, not only created animosity in the industry but also didn’t sit well with many investors.

For all its proven power, comparative advertising is a potentially contentious approach that is best used when an organization

  • is new in the marketplace or is simply not in a leadership position,
  • has a relevant differentiation from the competition—especially the industry leader, and
  • has a superior product or service with value-added customer benefits.

The Bottom Line

The history of comparative advertising shows that the consumer goods sector, with its better honed, more aggressive marketing skills, has been much more adept at using this approach than the financial services sector. To successfully implement this potentially effective approach to gaining favorable marketplace visibility, marketers must ensure

  • first, that all the required factors are in place
  • then, that the idea is effectively and appropriately executed.

In the proper situation, targeted comparative advertising can provide a powerful centerpiece for a financial services organization’s marketing campaign.