It was only a matter of time, but one also has to wonder why it took so long. But, there it was, right at the PGA Championship’s most intense moment as some of the greatest players in golf were vying for the lead on a steamy Sunday afternoon at the Bellerive Country Club near St. Louis. Betterment rolled out its latest, and arguably, its most sophisticated television commercial. It stars Maggie Siff, the ultra-talented actress who also stars in the Showtime series, "Billions." In the series, Siff plays Wendy Rhoades, the wife of New York District Attorney Chuck Rhoades, played by Paul Giamatti. Wendy is also the in-house shrink/performance coach at Axe Capital, the fictional uber hedge fund run by Chuck Rhoades’s one-time nemesis, Bobby Axelrod, played by the always soft-shirted Damian Lewis.
Anyone who follows us on Twitter @investopedia, knows we have a slight obsession with "Billions." Let’s just say, it’s right in our wheelhouse and we love it when viewers dig into our site, hunting for definitions and FAQs of complicated financial terms and concepts that writers Bryan Koppelman and David Levien drop into the show like truffle shavings. We even have our own viewers guide that we try to update every season. But we digress… this is about Betterment and Siff.
The commercial features Siff shot in a soft black-and-white filter. She turns to address the viewer in a tight close-up as the camera gradually pulls back throughout the 30 seconds. She’s impossible to ignore as she looks through you into your primitive financial soul, just as we’ve seen her do dozens of times as Dr. Wendy Rhoades. It's the same sultry stare and surety of speech that causes Axe Capital’s traders to snap out of their stock-picking funk and resume their conquest of the capitalist circus…getting them to believe that their ruthlessness and will to win is their highest self.
Maggie addresses the camera and says, “Hello investor. About once a decade, someone comes along and disrupts an entire industry. If you’re talking about the financial industry, it’s every few decades. Visionaries, revolutionaries, mavericks. They’re the people we talk about when we talk about changing the world. Would you know one of those people if you saw one? Are you one? Don’t settle for average investing. Demand better. Betterment! Outsmart average.”
Breaking Into the Big Boys' Club
This is a new campaign and a new message for the 10-year old online investing platform. The commercial is airing only in the New York metro area market, according to a company spokesperson. It's the first time Betterment has worked with a professional actor on a campaign and it has no immediate plans for more. Founded in 2008 by Jon Stein and Eli Broverman, Betterment is an actual grown up in fintech. It’s been there, done that as a one-time robo-advisor that realized before most that it would need to add human advisors to the mix if it wanted more affluent customers with more investable assets. It’s managed to punch its way to $13.5 billion in assets under management, making it among the largest of the independents along with Personal Capital and Wealthfront. It was the first of the independents to reach $10 billion in AUM, and added more services to advisors and 401k products to broaden its offerings. Still, the independents like Betterment have been trying to grow in the shade of the Trillion Dollar giants like Vanguard, BlackRock, Schwab and Fidelity, which all have online platforms or ‘digital advice platforms’, as they like to call them, that are many times larger than Betterment’s.
Competition and Fee Wars
As if to remind Betterment whose sandbox Sunday golf on a major television network really belongs to, Fidelity ran its own commercial featuring its zero-fee campaign – the latest salvo in the race to the fee bottom for brokers. The big guys can afford to play that game, but not Betterment. Fidelity and Schwab are mainstays on the PGA tour, where TV spots can range from several hundred thousand dollars to several million, depending on placement, frequency and level of sponsorship. Fidelity ran that campaign several times during Sunday’s final round as Tiger Woods made a valiant yet unsuccessful run at his 15th major, insuring millions of viewers in the demo sweet-spot.
Still, the one ad that stuck, at least for me, was Betterment's. I’ve watched it go from fintech upstart with a simple message about using technology combined with low fees to achieve investing success to this ‘maverick’, brand, fronted by a power actress who plays a power player on Showtime’s hit show. To be sure, it’s not the first time a financial services company leverages a popular actor to front its brand, and it won’t be the last. But by identifying its brand with Siff and calling itself revolutionary and visionary, is a bold move for Betterment. Given the giants it has to battle with in financial services and its resilience in lasting a decade, "survivor" might be a better name.