1 Wachovia Center
Charlotte, North Carolina 28288
Telephone: (704) 374-6565
Fax: (704) 374-3425
Web site: www.wachovia.com
NOTE: Since the initial appearance of this essay in the 1999 edition of Major Marketing Campaigns Annual, First Union Corporation became Wachovia. The essay continues to refer to the company's former name, as that was the official name of the organization when the campaign was launched.
On September 27, 1998, First Union Corporation debuted a commercial unlike any other in the financial services industry. In this spot the company avoided the stock images of financial services advertising—smiling customers, affluent retirees, and happy families. Instead, First Union depicted a chaotic and disturbing landscape—the "Financial World"—that was filled with symbolic representations. In "Launch," the initial execution, faceless people clad in black coats and bowler hats walk a city of garish neon. When one falls to the ground, his face shatters. Mutual funds are hawked by a fellow carrying a cigarette tray, and a fire-breather comes into view. A voice-over explains this dark scene: "This is a world only a few know well, a world of risk and uncertainty, where the roads can take you to success or prosperity—or sometimes to no place at all. This is the financial world." The images suddenly shift as the camera focuses on a towering edifice of steel and glass, shining in the sun and looming over the sordid scene beneath it. The voice-over concludes: "Yet high above the horizon, another mountain has risen—a mountain called First Union, with 16 million customers, the nation's eighth-largest brokerage and sixth-largest bank. For a new perspective of the financial world come to a mountain called First Union. Or, if you prefer, the mountain will come to you."
Created by the San Francisco-based ad agency Publicis & Hal Riney, "Financial World" was First Union's first national advertising campaign and was intended to introduce First Union to the world. Although a series of acquisitions had made First Union one of the largest financial-services corporations in the nation, few people were aware of the company's scale and range of offerings. "We want people to know that we're a substantial institution—a major player in the financial services world that can meet any financial need," Jim Garrity, First Union's vice president of advertising, told Adweek. With the stated goal of "breaking through the clutter of advertising," Publicis & Hal Riney turned to Star Wars creator George Lucas's company, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), for cutting-edge special effects. Although some critics blasted the campaign as bleak and intimidating, Garrity averred that "the financial world is not always a warm and fuzzy place…. [W]e wanted to acknowledge what the real world is like and show how our expertise can help customers succeed in it." Each of the five commercials that comprised "Financial World"
closed with an explanation of how First Union could assist consumers and with the same tag line: "Come to the mountain called First Union. Or, if you prefer, the mountain will come to you."
First Union's growth had been rapid. Beginning in the early 1980s, the Charlotte-based bank, headed by Edward Crutchfield, took over nearly 85 banks to become the sixth-largest bank in the United States. Its retail presence eventually stretched along the East Coast from Connecticut to Florida. In 1994 First Union started to expand into the arena of mutual funds and brokering. Two years later it bought Boston-based Keystone Investments Inc., a large manager of stock, bond, and money market funds. At the time, Crutchfield explained to an interviewer that the company was "trying to build a business that is about 50 percent traditional bank while the other [half] needs to look like [brokerages] Merrill Lynch, Fidelity, and Charles Schwab," according to the Boston Globe.
In 1997 First Union ran a branding campaign on the East Coast, where its retail presence was most strongly concentrated. That effort, which First Union credited with tripling awareness of the company in the area, focused on how the brand provided "smart, straightforward financial solutions in the customer's best interest." But First Union had its sights set higher than being simply a regional power. It believed it could purvey its services to consumers across the country and therefore decided to initiate a national advertising campaign. "We want to build upon that momentum [of the 1997 campaign] so that First Union is on the short list of top financial providers in the mind of every potential customer," Garrity said.
Though many of its competitors aired commercials that targeted a mass market, First Union aimed "Financial World" at a more narrow audience. "We wanted to target the top 5 percent," is how Publicis & Hal Riney's Brad Fogel explained it. In other words, First Union sought to appeal to two major groups—major corporations' chief financial officers (CFOs) and chief executive officers (CEOs) on the one hand, and the most sophisticated of individual investors—those who controlled over one million dollars of investable assets—on the other. "[W]e're reaching a point where we need to attract customers not just by buying institutions but by attracting prospects from around the country to do business with us," Garrity told American Banker.
In its effort to court an audience described by American Banker as "corporate leaders and wealthy people," First Union eschewed typical financial services marketing in favor of the edgy "Financial World" spots. The scenes of chaos and danger were chosen for a reason. "That's the reality," Fogel said. "That's the way [this demographic] see[s] the financial world. We had to speak with credibility." For instance, in "Change," First Union painted a depressing portrait of a system in flux. "In the financial world, banking as we know it has become a thing of the past," the voice-over intoned while images of collapsed neoclassical buildings, broken statuary, and currency drifting haphazardly in the wind flickered across the screen. "Teller windows have become electronic gateways," the narrator continues, and then proceeds to detail the various upheavals wracking the banking industry. By acknowledging the "real world," First Union hoped to earn the respect of experienced individual and corporate investors, those who had both gained and, inevitably, lost money in the course of investing.
"Financial World" also directly addressed corporate investors by discussing the problems specifically confronting corporate investments (and the solutions First Union could provide). "Sharks," for example, depicted a frog attempting to navigate its way across a body of water teeming with sharks and alligators. "Sometimes to defend against larger, fiercer competitors, your best choice is merger or acquisition," the narrator said. "But beware, lest your careful, well-planned strategy should result in failure. In these troubled waters, experience, knowledge, and size are your best allies." As the frog safely reaches a serene pond in the shadow of First Union's magnificent building, the voice-over concludes: "If you're considering strengthening your company through mergers or acquisition, think first of First Union. Wherever you plan to go, we have been there before."
The financial services sector that First Union was entering had become intensely competitive. In addition to First Union, several other large banks were in the process of staging massive branding efforts. "Historically, they haven't been savvy marketers because they worked in defined territories with a limited set of products," noted Advertising Age. "But as they...