by Steve Adubato, PhD

How important is a baby to your brand? What exactly can a baby—who can’t talk—communicate in a highly digitized TV commercial? Just ask the folks at E*TRADE, the online trading company that created the YouTube (as well as “water cooler” conversation) sensation when it kicked off a series of entertaining commercials featuring babies, with one in particular “talking” about the importance of investing in your future. E*TRADE’s brand was embedded into many people’s minds in early 2008 during Super Bowl XLII when the first of its spots hit with this really cute and intriguing toddler “talking” (with the help of special effects) in an adult voice.

The baby is sitting there with another baby at a computer screen. They are clearly in a child’s room, but they are talking to each other, again, in “adult” voices. The E*TRADE spot that really grabbed everyone’s attention was the “Broken Wings” spot. In the commercial, the lead E*TRADE baby tries to persuade the other baby that he’d have better luck if he invested via E*TRADE than messing around with the Lottery. The other baby starts singing the song “take these broken wings” and is then scolded by the lead baby. It is one of the funniest and memorable commercials.

I’m not sure how much of E*TRADE’s services people actually remember, but they clearly connected these babies (particularly the lead baby) with the E*TRADE brand. The company maxed out doing as many spots as they could with the kid.

E*TRADE did well. More people started going on the E*TRADE Web site wanting to find out more about what these babies were “selling.” All in all, E*TRADE did five commercials with the lead baby, but, as is often the case with babies or kids (not to mention dogs) they get older and their looks change. So, E*TRADE had little choice but to put out a casting call for a new baby.

You might think that a baby is a baby, but while the baby that was picked for the 2010 version of the E*TRADE spots was cute enough, he never connected like the first baby. Some media experts said he didn’t have the face or “the look”. Brands are a funny thing. They need to hit you viscerally in the gut. That’s the way a lot of communication works—in the gut—no just the head.

While E*TRADE gets points for being creative, imaginative and gutsy in its advertising campaign, it set itself up for a major branding problem because it tied so much of its success to the lead baby. Therefore, there are some communication and marketing messages to consider:

  • Don’t put all your eggs in one basket when creating a multi-faceted communication plan. Sure, the talking baby got your attention, but so much of E*TRADE’s campaign was based on THAT baby. They didn’t have a plan B. That was their one big egg in the basket
  • Getting your attention is hard enough with all the information and communication around us. But, KEEPING our attention is even harder. Remember, truly effective communication must be more than eye catching. It’s got to keep you engaged and involved whether it’s a TV commercial or a sales presentation with lots of bells and whistles at the beginning that lose your attention after a few minutes.
  • Taking advantage of technology makes perfect sense when creating a communication and advertising plan. However, you can get “cute” with this approach to the point where what you are actually selling or the message you want to deliver can get lots in an effort to be entertaining.