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Do Merrill Lynch's new business cards diss the brand?

Brand loyalists decry appearance of Bank of America colors — and a downsized bull

Jun 17, 2014 @ 12:01 am

By Mason Braswell

It's been more than five years since Bank of America Corp. acquired Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc., but some of the firm's “thundering herd” of brokers still jump at the threat of any changes to the Merrill Lynch name.

A new tweak to Merrill Lynch advisers' business cards earlier this year was all it took to cause a stir among some brand loyalists among the firm's approximately 13,700 advisers.

Several current and former Merrill Lynch brokers and industry recruiters pointed to two key changes: the shrinking of the iconic Merrill Lynch bull on the front of the cards and the addition of a red and blue strip at the bottom symbolizing Bank of America's two-tone flag.

“Not only are the colors of the bank's flag at the bottom (front) of the card, but the Merrill Lynch bull is getting smaller,” said one veteran Merrill Lynch adviser, who is based in New England and had been with the firm since before the Bank of America merger. “It's very uncomfortable.”

Another Merrill Lynch adviser of more than two decades said that he said that Bank of America was starting to take on a bigger presence than the Merrill Lynch bull. He also spoke on condition of anonymity.

“There's a big contingent of Merrill Lynch brokers that hope there will one day again be a MER on the stock exchange,” said Danny Sarch an industry recruiter with Leitner Sarch Consultants. “And [any intimation that Bank of America is taking over] doesn't make them feel warm and fuzzy.”

It is hard to gauge the scope of reactions because not all advisers had seen the cards, which are being rolled out as advisers request new cards.

But even those who downplayed the changes said that they were indicative the bank's growing role in wealth management.

Merrill Lynch spokeswoman Susan McCabe said that the changes were made as the firm looked to have brokers deliver the feel of “one company” to clients. Following the merger, the firm has been partnering the bank and brokerage and encouraging advisers to refer wealthy clients to the bank for lending, savings accounts and other products. Merrill Lynch trainees now spend time in the Bank of America branches.

In addition, she pointed out that although the bull on the front has gotten smaller, the new cards still feature a large image of the Merrill Lynch bull that fills most of the back of the card.

“We continue to evolve the look and feel of our communications, including business cards, to deliver 'one company' to our clients,” Ms. McCabe said. “The banner at the bottom of our business cards represents our capabilities across the company while the logo and bull icon on the cards prominently represent Merrill Lynch Wealth Management.”

Ms. McCabe said that the firm is planning on rolling out another iteration in July. This card will have less red on it, and the logo with the bull in the bottom right will be slightly larger. She said the next version was just continuing the evolution, but declined to discuss what feedback the firm had received.

Still, it's understandable why some brokers may be leery. Merrill Lynch is among the last major brokerage firms to keep its namesake following the financial crisis. Wachovia Corp. became Wells Fargo Advisors as part of a 2008 merger. The Smith Barney brand was dissolved into Morgan Stanley Wealth Management in September 2012. Last year, Bank of America did away with the Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc. holding company, although they made it clear at the time they would keep the brokerage name.

“Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley — that is Wall Street,” said Rick Rummage, president of industry recruiting firm The Rummage Group. “The people that work there love the brand.”

“There was a time when Merrill Lynch was an innovator and nobody did anything on the street until Merrill did it first,” said Tony Sirianni, a former manager at Merrill Lynch and Smith Barney who currently runs a branding firm, Sirianni Strategy Group.

Other brokers said that even the veteran advisers shouldn't let nostalgia get in the way.

“You have a lot of the older guys here who have worked for Merrill for 30 years and still refer to it as that,” said a Merrill Lynch adviser in Tennessee who had been at the firm less than two years. “But you have a lot of connectivity going on [between the bank and the brokerage] and what you have to do as a team member is embrace the positive sides of both.”

Advisers should know that brand loyalty is tough, especially in the advice industry, which has experienced significant consolidation through the years, said Ron Edde, an industry recruiter with Millennium Career Advisors.

“There's still some people that like Williams Lectric Shave too, and that hasn't been around for 30 years,” Mr. Edde said.

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