3 smart alternatives to celebrity endorsements

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Financial institutions have stars in their eyes.

Imagine yourself as a baby boomer in need of financial guidance. You are intelligent and have enjoyed a successful career. Now you’re seeking opportunities to ensure a comfortable retirement while preserving a legacy for your family.

Who do you turn to for advice?

The Fonz, right? You look to Fonzie, because he has long demonstrated his expertise in financial management and has ready insights to share concerning the maximization of property ownership as an equity asset. Ayyyyy….

We love Henry Winkler as much as the next guy, but the wisdom of staking a financial services marketing campaign on an aging star’s likeability has to be questioned. Yet, Winkler is one of at least four silver-haired celebrities — including Robert Wagner, Pat Boone, and Fred Thompson — suggesting to Boomers that the last of their happy days can be financially unburdened care of a reverse mortgage.

Despite the fact that financial advisors are sought by every mature generation for sound insights and sober thinking, financial institutions appear to be punch drunk on celebrity. It’s not only reverse-mortgagers that have stars in their eyes, either. AmEx has been endorsed by Tiger Woods, Capital One by Alec Baldwin, and Visa ads have featured the Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez — ironic choices all, given that these pitchmen have shilled for credit card companies while their personal credibility has suffered badly in the public eye. Gene Simmons, the demon bassist from Kiss, is both partner and mouthpiece for Cool Springs (a life insurer for high-net-worth individuals), and Alex Trebek recommends buying Colonial Penn before your life is truly in jeopardy.

The celebrity approach fails in part because these vaguely condescending TV spots sell today’s consumer short. Potential clients are seeking the knowledge and tools needed to take charge of their finances — and here in the information age, they’re finding much of it on their own. It takes just a few clicks to research a state’s 529 plan, learn the definition of “load” on a mutual fund, or self-direct investments through E*Trade. With meaningful resources at their fingertips, viewers are not fooled into thinking that if they use Ameriprise they’ll retire on a horse farm like the one Tommy Lee Jones is seen wandering around. They’re simply not falling for it.

Moreover, the current crop of ads tend to be narrowly focused. Providers apparently assume that plugging a celebrity into a financial problem will portray their brand as a solution; the implication being that it worked for Tommy Lee so it will be a good fit for you, dear consumer. But when every potential client’s needs are unique, why exhaust a marketing budget on a single service? A more versatile campaign for product providers and investment advisers might actually speak to the plethora of problems their pool of prospects faces.

Imagine, then, redirecting those six- and seven-figure signing fees paid to celebrities. Here are three actionable, cost-effective strategies on which to spend a marketing and communications budget.

Build a knowledge base promoting the organization’s thought leadership. Create a platform that offers as much objective advice as possible to consumers. Develop a PR and SEO strategy to ensure its visibility.

Engage customers through social media to determine which products would serve them best, and develop educational content supporting stated needs. Actually ask them what they need or desire!

Feed homegrown content to major media, tying live events to the calendar. For example, tax insights in the first quarter; estate advice during summer graduations; ideas for squirreling savings in autumn; and guidance on gift exemptions before the holidays.

We’re not enemies of pop culture, but we are skeptical about hiring celebrities to deploy products your clients may not need. Chief marketing officers and brand communicators should recognize their money can be more wisely spent — as investing consumers do.