Sunday, September 18, 2011

Doughnuts and big dough: Edward Jones' new TV ad whets varied appetites

It's magic: You eat it up (so trustingly!) and Edward Jones gets fatter.
   (Sept. 18, 2014)  Financial services firm Edward Jones is at it again, cultivating its "neighbors helping neighbors"  persona in a new TV ad that is being aggressively aired across the country. In it, a tenderhearted financial advisor accommodates a young couple's schedule by venturing out into the darkness to meet with them at his modest storefront office in a neighborhood strip mall. He is a lonely, noble figure as he earnestly heads along deserted streets toward his destination. As if he isn't adorable enough already, he stops first at a doughnut shop, to sweeten the dealings he'll be proposing to ensure that his wide-eyed clients' financial future is secure and prosperous. ( 
    His own future certainly is, if he follows the script handed down from headquarters. And Edward Jones itself is still thriving, despite having been censured by the Securities and Exchange Commission for failing to disclose kickbacks from selected mutual funds. Several class-action suits involved hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation for angry clients. The firm became notorious for hidden fees and exorbitant commissions. For a couple of years, it backed off , using simple, generic advertising. Now it's reclaimed its former mythology, once again projecting that "It's a Wonderful Life" image. Maybe the Johnny Appleseed ambiance will warm hearts and forge trust once again.

That pink box of sweet treats will put everyone in a more relaxed, cordial state of mind.
    There is a charming, cozy enclave of the American psyche in which places such as Lake Wobegon, Mayberry and the Smuckers' family home repose. It's that halcyon world where Father Knows Best, and  a man's word is his bond. It is this realm in which financial services firm Edward Jones has chosen to position itself, and it has been brilliant in cultivating its persona. Unlike the industry as a whole -- which has a sleek, metropolitan, high-rise, high-tech, high-roller image -- Edward Jones has thousands of modest storefront offices throughout the heartland. In each, there is one advisor, who is humbly, compassionately at your service.

Howdy folks. Come right in!
    But the birthday card he sends you -- and the pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving, and the new Norman Rockwell calendar every January --  are all part of the firm's scrupulously crafted  "Our Town" facade. Everything from the advisor's regular, "just checking in"  phone call every few weeks ("Is your cat feeling better?")  to his investment advice, is ruthlessly stage-managed by a vast, extremely profitable, expansionistic headquarters.
    Some of the firm's financial advisors refer to it as a cult -- they call it "Jonestown" -- and hundreds quit every year, because they "can't drink the green Kool Aid any longer."
    My five-part series about the inner workings of Edward Jones can be found at

    Edward Jones has  perfected an incredibly astute image, as a place where regular folks can achieve financial security, complete with their own personal Jimmy Stewart to look out for their best interests. This isn't Wall Street -- it's Main Street -- and Edward Jones is the trusted, reassuring shepherd for the "Mom and Pop" investor.
Like Jimmy Stewart, your Edward Jones advisor will never let you down.
     It's a cynical but incredibly effective fabrication. 
     It's almost as if the firm had a split personality: The big, mean money machine at its sparkling St. Louis headquarters -- with its rigid rules, its totalitarian, "cloak-and-dagger" scrutiny of its employees' every move, and its single-minded, thoughtfully conceived blueprints for conquest -- versus the "howdy, neighbor" ambiance it cultivates among the fruited plains and amber waves of grain. Oh what a beautiful mornin' -- everything's going our way!
Gleaming, showy headquarters building in St. Louis belies the folksy image the firm cultivates.
      Edward Jones has a "close-knit culture, fiercely loyal advisor force and stick-to-your-knitting investment philosophy," according to a February, 2012, article at
    To some advisors, all that "knitting" is intolerable, and they are anything but loyal. Their sarcastic rants are all over the Internet. The "Mothership" as they refer to headquarters, is The Empire, and not in a good way.  
The "Mothership" isn't as maternal as some would like.