Dan and Patricia are young, sophisticated, and attractive. They have good taste in art and furniture, and most people would like to be invited to a light-filled loft like theirs for a dinner party.

Too bad they're not real.

Dan and Patricia are characters in a current ad for Merrill Lynch & Co.'s wealth management services.

The high-profile advertising campaign is one of several begun in recent months by major banking and brokerage companies, all hoping to woo the lucrative high-net-worth segment.

During the last decade the number of millionaires in the United States grew from 1.8 million to 6.3 million, according to Spectrem Group, a Windsor, Conn., consulting firm that specializes in research about affluent households.

The industry has long avoided mass marketing in favor of referrals and one-on-one prospecting, but the new ad strategies reflect several important trends:

  • Competition for affluent clients is intensifying.
  • Brand identity is crucial in this competition.
  • Wealthy Americans are an increasingly diverse niche.

"It's not your father's 'rich guy' anymore," said marketing professional Dan Ross, riffing on a recent Oldsmobile tagline.

"The entire financial marketplace is converging on the high-net-worth business," said Ross, president and principal at Wechsler Ross & Partners, a New York financial services marketing firm. "As a client once told me, you don't get new business from old money. So you have to go where the new money is."

That's becoming increasingly obvious to a broad array of financial services companies. Charles Schwab's purchase of U.S. Trust last year signaled the discount broker's ambition to enter the high-net-worth market. And Chase Manhattan's purchase of J.P. Morgan last year (to form J.P. Morgan Chase) brought together a successful commercial banking company and an investment house known for its superrich clientele.

Rich people once protected their wealth in staid trusts and regional banks, but commercial and investment banking companies are recognizing a new breed of affluent Americans, who are younger and often more involved in their financial lives than their predecessors.

These banking companies -- hoping to capture a bigger share of the high margins available in wealth management -- are developing their private banking divisions and fortifying their brands through slick print and television campaigns.

In December, Merrill started its first high-net-worth marketing campaign, for its Unlimited Advantage fee-based service. On June 14, it began its Wealth Management campaign, according to Bob Horton, director of integrated marketing for Merrill's U.S. private-client division. (The ads featuring Dan and Patricia are part of the latter campaign.)

The newest ads, created by the New York agency J. Walter Thompson, are appearing in publications like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Barron's, as well as in upscale lifestyle magazines such as Vanity Fair. The brokerage giant is aiming at people with $250,000 or more of investable assets.

"Our internal goal is to come up with a consistent look and feel for Merrill Lynch in the marketplace," Horton said. The intended image is "very sophisticated, very elegant, and very intelligent."

Actor/comedian/writer Steve Martin, who does voiceovers for the television and radio components, is an integral part of the campaign, Horton said. Martin "provides a consistent voice, literally and figuratively," and his persona is "urbane, witty, and clever," Horton said.

He declined to say how much the campaign is costing, except to say that, with TV and radio spots as well as 60 to 70 print ads per month, the expense is substantial.

Merrill's challenge is to update its image from that of a traditional brokerage house to that of the world's premier wealth management firm, Horton said. The company manages nearly $1 trillion for millionaire clients.

However, bank marketers emphasize that these campaigns are not intended to bring in leads but to raise the companies' visibility.

"Classically, advertising is awareness, and awareness breeds favorability, and favorability breeds trust," said Greg Furman, president of the Luxury Marketing Council, a New York trade association for sellers of luxury goods and services. "And trust is what companies can leverage into a long-term relationship."

Charles Wendel, president of Financial Institutions Consulting, a New York consulting firm, said that, ultimately, advertising and image are far less important than a company's internal commitment to its wealthy clients.

"Ad campaigns are the foam on the champagne, as opposed to the champagne," he said. More important, "the culture has to support the high-net-worth approach."

This story was adapted from American Banker.

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