Are You Marketing Like It’s 1908?

By Kate Young

Recently, a colleague lent me a 992-page book on financial advertising.

Surprise #1: I actually read it.

Surprise # 2:  It was riveting. Electrifying. It covered everything from design to brand journalism, content marketing, data collection and analysis, forging an empathetic connection with the customer, reaching a diverse market—and even how to face competition from industry disruptors.

Surprise #3: The book was published in 1908. That’s not a typo. Financial Advertising (Levey Bros. & Co.), was written by E. St. Elmo Lewis, an early visionary in world of modern advertising.

Has nothing changed over the years?

Obviously, many layers of regulatory compliance have been added to financial advertising since then.  And the public discourse of 1908 tended to reflect a casual condescension toward anyone who wasn’t an affluent white male. At our best moments, we now try to avoid that.

In spite of those differences, though, many of Lewis’s ideas on advertising are startlingly progressive.

The contrasts between today’s marketing essentials and those of 1908 are mostly in the technical details. For example, Lewis devotes great care to discussing the pros and cons of using loose leaf binders vs. index cards to collect customer information.

His point, though, is that we need to be collecting and analyzing not only basic consumer data such as name, address, employer—but also information on assets, habits, club affiliations, and other bank/credit relationships. He even provides a framework for collecting data on customer touchpoints like form letters and newsletters.

And then there were the bugaboos facing the banking industry in 1908. They’re history, yet they seem oddly familiar:

  • The struggle to emerge from the Great Crash of 1906
  • The threat to consumers posed by shady investment schemes
  • Growing competition from “mail-order banks” and “department store banks”

Today, as we grapple with continuing ripples from the financial crisis of 2008, the threat of online scams and security breaches, incursions from fintech—and relentless Amazonification of the marketplace—we’d do well to consider Lewis’s linchpin advice:

Create advertising that will capture the consumers’ attention—in order to then educate them.

Have you caught up yet with the best practices of financial advertising in 1908?

Here’s what Lewis was calling for 110 years ago. It’s a punch list that many banks today are still trying to work through.

  1. Attach a sense of personality to your bank.

Lewis says, “In the mind of the average man a bank has no individuality until it has created it. People are too busy to stop and read an advertisement just because somebody has paid for it.

“If the advertiser is a personality like Lawson or Shaw, or Roosevelt or J.P. Morgan, or John D. Rockefeller, it is different.

“The advertisement gathers individuality and interest through facts already known, and interest already aroused from dormancy.”

Today, we call that “humanizing your bank.” And it’s a big reason banks need to engage with customers on social media. You may not have celebrities touting your bank. But through social media, you now have the means to introduce your leaders and staff to the community, creating a sense of “individuality and interest through facts already known.”

  1. Give ideas “room to breathe.”

When working with authors, I often point out that readers have trouble following long blocks of text in a digital format. And then there’s the famous 8-second attention span. Imagine my surprise to discover that none of that is new.

“More and more Americans are reading by ‘skipping,’” Lewis tells us. “They are looking for the interesting thing. They haven’t time to read everything, hence they skip from page to page, their eyes seeking the thing that will be interesting, that most nearly touches their lives and occupations, fads, hobbies, pleasures.”

And how do we help them find that?

“Don’t be afraid of white space,” Lewis advises. “It always makes valuable the space you have filled with words.

  1. Use compelling images, and target them to the appropriate audience.

“A picture speaks in an [sic]  universal tongue,” Lewis tells us.

Of course, the advertisers of 1908 didn’t have videos, memes, gifs, and libraries of stock photography. To harness the power of the image, they had to hire commercial illustrators, photographers, and printers—a substantial investment.

So they needed to get it right. Often, in Lewis’s estimation, they did not.

No one can explain what this image has to do with banking, not even Lewis.

Lewis says that “the advertiser, in his endeavor to reach the public through illustrations, must train himself objectively to accurately gauge the caliber of the artistic perceptions of those to whom he appeals.” In other words, not all images have the same effect on all viewers.

Luckily for you, in this digital age, you have the luxury of trial and error (A/B testing, if you prefer). Do you really think you can appeal to your senior customers using a series of emojis? Or to your millennial customers with a 30-minute talking-head testimonial video? You can try. You might learn a lot.

But when you get the image right, you have the best chance of hooking the audience long enough to convey your message.

  1. Engage and educate the consumer through storytelling.

While Lewis emphasizes the need to engage the customer on an emotional level, he’s not a big fan of gift-giving—or what he calls novelty advertising. “It does not require much of an advertiser to buy a thousand paper cutters or a thousand pretty calendars, put them in envelopes and send them out to a surfeited, blasé and indifferent public,” he warns us. And in case you don’t believe him, he provides an example of a truly awful desk blotter.

This approach to bank marketing did not work any better in 1908 than it would in 2018.

Lewis puts far more stock in storytelling: “Stories, human stories, win most; the direct, simple annals of Life appeal to the living.”

He advocates using a journalistic approach—rather than ad copy—to provide news stories geared toward customers and prospects. He also anticipates our current fascination with authenticity: “the solid wage-earner, the careless well-to-do, the man who is ‘making a living and a bit more,’ know what real life stories are and like them because they strike close to them.”

It’s what we now call content marketing and brand journalism.

  1. Face down the disruptors.

Lewis is blunt as he delivers the bad news in 1908:

“Banking-by-mail in some form is here to stay.” Access, scale, privacy, and interest rates were all areas in which the small local banks found it hard to compete with the mail-order upstarts.

Today we could update that to say, “Fintech financial services, in some form, are here to stay…At least until something better comes along.”

Now—as then—we can’t stop the wheels of progress. But we can adapt.

Lewis suggests that bankers look to the retail sector to learn how shopkeepers had responded to the surge in catalogue houses. “Modernize your business,” he says, “educate your people, tell them about the quality of your goods, buy some of the things from the catalogue houses.”  And ultimately, be prepared to explain to the customer why your goods and services are better.

Likewise, bankers today can benefit by:

  • Analyzing the Amazon model
  • Studying brick-and-mortar retailers that continue to thrive in the Amazon age
  • Using fintech products and services to become familiar with what they offer
  • Educating bank staff so that they are prepared to educate the customer

Lewis made a prediction for the future of bank marketing, and it may still come true.

He said, “I am a believer in the idea that the future savings bank advertising will devote more space to educating the people in how to save.”

We couldn’t agree more—we’ve been following the new developments in this area, and will continue to report on them as they come up. If you need help getting started, the ABA Foundation provides a library of Consumer Resources that you can share with your customers to help them with their personal finances and promote financial literacy. Stay tuned.

Kate Young is the content editor of Email: [email protected]