Financial firms' ads stress experience during volatile time

Most financial companies haven't much to brag on these days. Except, for the lucky ones, survival.

Which may explain why some institutions are stressing in print ads how long they've been around: such as Franklin Templeton Investments boasting more than 165 years of "experience" (the sum experience of its three management groups), AXA Equitable touting 149, BB&T Capital Markets, 136, and Fidelity Investments, 60. Credit Suisse boasts "since 1856." And Wachovia Securities' ads tout 120 years.

While the ads aren't generally new, it's no accident that they're running right now.

"The message is that we're strong and stable and here to serve customers at a very volatile time," Wachovia spokeswoman Mary Beth Navarro says. That campaign, she notes, has run since August. And Fidelity's has run since winter, spokesman Vincent Loporchio says.

As for Franklin Templeton, its latest print advertisement has run since February, though it has stressed experience for years, spokeswoman Holly Gibson Brady says. "We believe that is a message that resonates with financial advisers and investors in any kind of market," she says.

Executives from AIG and Lehman Bros. declined to comment. Merrill Lynch executives also declined to comment, but Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis made one thing clear in a press conference earlier this week: He plans to keep the Merrill Lynch name if the merger is approved.

So, what should the financial giants be communicating — if anything — to scared customers right now? The stock market keeps churning. Big-name institutions are disappearing overnight.

Crisis consultants differ. Some say financial services companies should be straightforward, yet take the time to point out their strengths.

But that's not so simple for any big bank or brokerage at the moment. "I don't envy anybody in a communications role right now," says Lynn Kettleson, a crisis communications specialist. "These are the most difficult of times."

Among the mixed advice from experts:

•Do nothing. During an industry crisis, ads are a waste of money, public relations guru Katie Paine says. "No amount of happy-face advertising can counteract what's going on in the financial markets," she says. "People are so skeptical and cynical, they're looking for action, not words."

•Reassure customers. The key is keeping the ones you have, not hunting for new ones, says Jonathan Bernstein of Bernstein Crisis Management. "All they want to know is that their money is safe."

•Be empathetic. Initial advertising should tell customers and shareholders that you understand their concerns, Bernstein says. "It's a fundamental of crisis communications — address the feelings of stakeholders before you get to the facts."

•Tout stability. If you have 100 years of history, say it, says Lynne Doll, president of The Rogers Group, a crisis consulting firm. "If you have a history of conservative investments, say that."

•Train staff. Employees must be trained on how to reassure nervous customers, Bernstein says.

•Seek third parties. Find reputable third parties who will confirm your strengths, Doll says.

•Don't wait until you're in a crisis. The best time to buy credibility is with an effective message before a crisis hits, Kettleson says.