The transformation from financial high-flyer to defunct also-ran happens today with stunning speed. Decades of hard-won reputation disappear in days. Amid the sturm und drang accompanying the meltdown of Bear Stearns (b. 1923), the Federal conservatorship of Fannie Mae (b. 1968) (NYSE: FNM) and Freddie Mac (b. 1970) (NYSE: FRE), and most recently the bankruptcy of Lehman Bros. (b.1850) and the $85 billion bailout of AIG (b.1919) (NYSE: AIG) breaking headlines, what happens to all of these financial brands when the dust finally clears? Even after customers head for the exits, the balance sheets are bereft, and the lights are shut off, do any of these brands have enough intrinsic value for a second act?
Many of historic financial services brands worked their way into the zeitgeist through relentless consumer advertising campaigns, sometimes in multiple iterations. From 1975 – 87 and beginning again 1998, many had good reason to say “Thank you, Paine Webber.” Who can forget the immediate pavlovian response a bon mot from EF Hutton elicited?
And the redoubtable John Houseman added immeasurably to the English lexicon (with a little help from WPP’s Ogilvy & Mather) with his unique pronunciation of the word “earrrrrrrrrn” in these spots for Smith Barney:
Others were immortalized in books, like Solomon Brothers (b. 1910) in Michael Lewis’ Liar’s Poker and Drexel Burnham Lambert (b. 1935) and Kidder Peabody & Co. (b. 1865) in James Stewart’s Den of Thieves.
Most of the these brands disappeared by acquisition – some might say a variation of three card Monte – rather than bankruptcy. But given all of the brand baggage, does it make more sense to start anew or blow the dust off the diamond? Unfettered from the millstone of its swashbuckling Solomon association, Citigroup (NYSE: C) tapped into the latent equity of Smith Barney, re-launching it in its financial centers and retail bank branches. Joseph Jett – the trader famous for inspiring an uncharacteristic emetic response from “Neutron Jack” Welch upon unveiling unprecedented trading losses at Kidder Peabody & Co. – has embraced his notoriety to brand his offshore capital management firm with his own name! Time must indeed heal all wounds for financial services brands.
And what about a renaissance for brands that simply disappeared: First Boston. Dean Witter. Manufacturers Hanover. Chemical Bank (which bought Manny Hanny and Chase and rebranded itself . . . Chase) (NYSE: JPM). What’s old is new again. Even tag lines rise once more. With the deft legerdemain of removing a “the”, Citigroup has become Citi, and resurrected the 1977 line “Citi never sleeps” (arguably a more relevant assertion of value than its ham-handed and specious predecessor, “Let’s get it done”).
Instead of inventing new, tortured brands (to wit, Ameriprise) , why not follow Citi’s lead and imbue these legacy brands with new life? Public memory is forgiving, and history may gloss over Bear Stearns’, Fannie Mae’s, and AIG’s implosions. But the names will retain a familiarity decades in the making. And after all, “Paine Webber” rolls off the tongue a good deal more easily than “UBS Wealth Management USA”.