When Richard Khaleel joined Alliance Capital Management of New York as head of marketing in 1996, he set to work further distancing the company from the use of standard investment company advertising images.
The company, in 1995, had already moved away from ads such as that of an elderly, retired couple, walking along a beach or otherwise enjoying the good life, thanking their broker for making it all possible. Alliance had begun adding humorous touches and Khaleel advanced the process with the introduction of parodies of traditional advertising.
The introduction of the company's "Extreme Measures" advertising campaign in March 1998, developed by Khaleel, was another step in the company's advertising evolution.
Alliance's newest batch of television commercials includes one of a classic scene, but with a touch of gallows humor. A retired couple is walking peacefully along a beach with their son, only to tell him he is written out of their will since he had failed to plan for his own retirement. The voiceover message is: "Don't be caught unprepared."
In the ads, Alliance shows what terrible things can happen if a person fails to invest for retirement, but with a humorous twist that takes the edge off what could be construed as negative messages, Khaleel said.
Other commercials in the campaign include a father on a fishing trip with his son, saying that it is "time to get a job" since daddy lost money in the stock market; a husband revealing to his pregnant wife that they need to pick a good lottery number since he mishandled the family nest egg; a young mother informing grandpa he has to move out because "we can't afford you and the baby."
For the past two years, the firm's commercials have been directed by Gregory Hoblit, director of the TV shows "NYPD Blue" and "LA Law" and the feature film "Primal Fear." Hoblit is the originator of the "shaky camera" style. The ad agency, Ferrell Calvillo of New York, has developed the ads.
On May 5, the Extreme Measures television ads won the Financial Communications Society's Portfolio Award for best corporate image television campaign. Alliance has received awards from the society four out of the last five years.
"Humor has a tremendous confidence to it," said Khaleel, 48. "The humor of a leader really does exude confidence and I guess that's what we're going for.
"It's really exposing people's worst fears in a humorous way, that somehow they're not going to be prepared," Khaleel said of the approach. "That way it becomes a very strong marketing message because it's not just humor for the sake of humor. It's humor in the sense of exposing something that we don't want you to do."
"Rich attempted to do the unfathomable: show the negative with a solution," said Duff Ferguson, assistant vice president and director of public relations for Alliance.
Khaleel started his career with large advertising agencies, marketing packaged goods. In that capacity, he took part in a number of high-profile projects like Chase's "Better Banking" campaign of the late 1980s. Before joining Alliance, he was head of marketing and technology at NBC cable and was instrumental in promoting the launch of CNBC.
The current commercial campaign maintains Alliance's long-standing emphasis on selling mutual funds, with loads, through the "advice channel" of brokers and investment advisors, Khaleel said. All of the ads recommend the use of advisors.
There have been three major campaigns over the past four years, each using more humorous scenarios than the last.
Initially, the ads sought to respond to the no-load fund companies who were debunking load fund companies, saying, "you don't need an advisor," Khaleel said. In 1995, prior to Khaleel's arrival, the message from Alliance was "Don't Do it Yourself." One commercial showed a man cutting his own hair, a metaphor for the do-it-yourself investor who eschews getting advice.
The next campaign, in 1996, the first one overseen by Khaleel, advised consumers "Don't let this Happen to You" and included a commercial of an older couple who could not afford to retire because they did not have enough savings. In one, the husband tells his wife that they can not retire. He then suggests that perhaps he could mow lawns and that she could take a second job to make ends meet.
The 1996 ads were part of a branding effort that Alliance started in that year to improve its image among broker/dealers.
Print ads that Khaleel has devised have also been amusing. During the market downturn last fall, some ads led with the opposite message of what Alliance really wanted to convey to the public. In 80-point type the headlines read: "Cash In," "Sell Low," "Don't Invest," "Call a Psychic" and Khaleel's favorite, "Broker Shmoker." In smaller print, below the headlines, the ads explain why such strategies are faulty.
Khaleel said there are limits to this light-hearted but cautionary approach. But, he thinks the ads have helped establish Alliance as "an advocate for retirement preparedness through the use of a financial advisor."
"We've always used humor as a part of our branding because we feel it's a way to deal with difficult topics...and we want people to do the right thing," said Khaleel. "We want them to use a financial advisor because we feel, long term, that that's the best way to achieve your financial goals."
The firm's logo has long consisted of three triangles which represent Alliance, the investment advisor and the consumer. At the end of last year, a tagline, "The Investment Professional's Choice," was added.
Alliance employed the branding strategy to move beyond its already strong reputation as an institutional money manager and create more awareness of the firm in the retail market, Khaleel said.
One tactic Alliance does not use is promoting portfolio managers in its marketing efforts, Khaleel said. Many of Alliance's managers have long tenures at the firm and handle institutional accounts as well as retail mutual funds. The firm keeps an institutional approach "to pretty much keep a low profile and let the performance talk for itself," Khaleel said.
At the start of the branding campaign, Alliance conducted a survey that found that financial professionals felt the firm was "a niche investment manager" but "it's not really much of an equity manager," said Ferguson. A survey of brokers and planners a year later found that they saw Alliance as a broadly diversified company that is a strong equity manager.
"One of the things they cited specifically was that they saw the company a lot more because of the advertising," Ferguson said.
Alliance's market share has grown since the branding campaign was started, Ferguson said. In 1996, Alliance had 2.07 percent of the gross sales of load companies which sell through intermediaries. It now has 6.65 percent.
Branding is important because "more and more we know that performance alone is not enough to differentiate you in the marketplace, so you really will be differentiated by your personality and the kinds of relationships that you conduct," said Khaleel.
The relationships that are important for Alliance are those with wholesalers, brokers, and advisors. Alliance conducts frequent surveys of both brokers and consumers to monitor their opinions about the firm.
The Extreme Measures campaign has been a hit with brokers and financial advisors, Khaleel said. One indicator is that the firm has received over 20,000 requests for a video "seminar starter" for brokers that includes the commercials.