The credit-card market is unbelievably competitive, but Merrill Lynch (ML) is determined to get its foot, shoulders, and head through the door.
It had participated in successful sweepstakes promotions with Visa in the past and decided to take on the model for its latest push. In order to spread the word about ML's "Signature Rewards" program, the company teamed with Burson-Marsteller to create a truly transformative event for one lucky winner.
"One of the trends that happened to be emerging both from pop culture, but also across affluence, was increasing focus on making over your life in one way or another," says Peter Barsoom, ML's director of card payments. "We decided to build on that theme and develop something that was unique to Merrill Lynch clients."
The campaign was timed to encourage existing customers to use their ML cards for holiday spending and to attract new customers. The PR team devised the "Million-Dollar Makeover" concept to inject a sense of fun into the company's old-line image, but, at the same time, maintain its reputation as a firm that caters to wealth. Samantha Lucas, the Burson MD who headed the account, says, "We wanted the sweepstakes to be reflective of what the values of the card are," an experience that transcends mere money.
The PR team surveyed thousands of consumers to determine what their wildest dreams were and what they would do to improve their lives if given the chance. Once the prize list - $250,000 cash, new home furnishings, a fashion makeover, an Italian vacation, and a Porsche, among other things - and the timetable were set, Burson began hyping the sweepstakes. The agency, working with the company, held a promotional fashion event in LA, an exotic-car show in New York, and a celebrity event in Florida, with an Olympic gold medallist surrounded by private jets and Mercedes Maybachs. The team also attracted financial and consumer media coverage with direct outreach and word-of-mouth buzz.
The contest succeeded in generating more business for ML's credit-card division. "We had over 18 million spending transactions during this period," Barsoom says. "That represented a 15% year-over-year increase."
Each of those transactions also represented an automatic entry into the sweepstakes. The randomly selected grand-prize winner was Dan Manthey, a retired fire chief from Minnesota, who was flown to New York and feted at an awards luncheon in February.
As an added bonus, Lucas says, Manthey and his girlfriend are "completely crazy about Michael Payne," the host of Designing for the Sexes, who will be supervising the redesign of Manthey's home. Over the next 12 months, Manthey will ostensibly undergo a million bucks' worth of financial, personal, and material makeover.
The giddiness that a huge giveaway provokes has even spread to ML's employees. "The financial advisers that heard about it - because it's been internally communicated, as well - have been really ringing the phones off the hook trying to find out when the next one's going to be," Lucas says.
Burson and ML are already hard at work on the next campaign, tentatively titled the "Ultimate World Tour," which will offer the winner a globetrotting trip focused on golf, shopping, or pure adventure. That campaign will be formally announced within the next few months.
Lucas says that she hopes the consumer media walk away from the next project with the same message: "We know that we haven't been in the game very long, but ... this is an incredibly healthy, growing, and aggressive line of business for Merrill Lynch."
PR team: Merrill Lynch and Burson-Marsteller (both New York)
Campaign: The Merrill Lynch Million-Dollar Makeover
Time frame: July 2004 to February 2005