A recent story in the Wall Street Journal brought into stark relief the mistake of thinking that exceptional creative doth a strong brand make.
E*Trade’s chief executive received one heck of a “Dear Steven” letter a few days back when he opened the email. In it was a letter, filed with regulators, sent by the hedge-fund firm Citadel, accusing E*Trade, under the watch of CEO and Interim Chairman Steven Freiberg, of “squandering” a “phenomenal franchise.” Those are fighting words whatever your category, but let’s take a moment to look at this through the lens of advertising, especially when it has not been built to solve severe problems with engagement and loyalty.
In the letter, Citadel wrote that the online brokerage has consistently received “high marks for its trading platform, customer service, and usability, and has benefited from strong customer loyalty.” Strong customer loyalty? Really? How does that sit exactly with the wave of withdrawals by E*Trade customers of billions of dollars of cash and other assets from the company’s bank and brokerage business as its investments floundered? We guess this is one of those loyalty metrics that came from questions that a research team decided meant loyalty, instead of what actual consumers said creates loyalty, based on what they considered important and expected—emotionally and rationally—from a category brand. Or they just talked to the customer they had left!
Through that lens, we saw a brand in trouble at the beginning of the year. E*Trade trailed four other brands and had problems meeting customer expectations in the category. So, can’t say the letter surprised us much, with Citadel a big shareholder in E*Trade. But, again, this speaks to what great creative can and can’t do.
The talking-baby ads from E*Trade are among the most well-liked, and highly viral, campaigns in recent history. These babies are not only funny, but the ads are well executed, and the creative team can’t be blamed if the message it was given to deliver is not the right one after all. When rumor on the street is that the brand did not behave like a responsible adult, the image of infants talking may be a little too close to consumer perceptions to be the best choice. Just saying.
We scratch our heads at what sort of research was done on these ads. We can only image it was one of the plethora of “tests” that measure liking and laugh-quotient, and not if the ads actually work to heal the brand in exactly the spot that hurts. That requires a sound strategic test, against a consumer-centric reality, and not just a laugh track. Note to brands: creative and advertising are not interchangeable words. Advertising can be highly creative, and not do the job it was hired to do: in this case, help save a wounded brand.
Advertising can never be evaluated on creative strength alone, outside the category and the brand problems and strengths. Only a baby would even talk about such a thing.