When Charles Schwab founded the brokerage that bears his name, he capitalized on the frustrations of investors sick of paying high commissions for stock tips they didn't need. That was surely an easier sell in a bull market. Nowadays -- especially after individuals got burned by two major crashes in one decade -- most of us don't want to tackle this investing thing completely on our own. Now, to borrow a phrase from the company's marketing materials, we want to Talk to Chuck.
Schwab's transformation from order-taker for do-it-yourselfers to warm-and-fuzzy (yet economical) financial adviser -- which I wrote about in the January/February issue of Money -- is perfectly encapsulated in two ad campaigns I took a look at while reporting my story. The commercials, produced more than two decades apart, illustrate a shift not only in the company's strategy, but, more importantly, in the investor psyche. Let's start with this mid-1980s ad:
I had to laugh at the pocket protector and the boast of "computer-fast" trades. Computer fast! But 1980s nostalgia aside, to me the ad captures the whole spirit of the stockpicker culture -- "I built this software business my way, and I make investment decisions my way." Contrast that with the earnest ordinary people in Schwab's most recent ads, which offer "help that's there when you need it" and "more help for less money."
Schwab is betting that more of us will be willing to pay for some kind of help -- even those who don't have the big bucks to attract the personalized attention we would (hopefully) get from a financial planner.
But will we be willing to pay? I've talked to planners who complain about customers who don't really want "fee-only" advice -- that is, advice they pay for with clear fees, not via commissions built into the financial products they buy. Instead, say, the planners, these investors want advice that's "free-only." I think the problem isn't that we're unwilling to pay for advice; it's that we're not confident we're getting something worth paying for.
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