Remember the classic brokerage commercial from some 20 years ago, featuring the line "When E. F. Hutton talks, people listen"? The overall impression it imparted, at least to me, was that E. F. Hutton was an exclusive service for wealthy people -- and as a twentysomething of very limited means, that didn't include me.

Times have changed, though. More than ever, brokerages are actively courting the average American. Grant McCracken addressed this topic recently in his anthropology-and-economics blog at cultureby.com, opining that "it is a wonderful thing to see an industry that previously would not 'stoop to conquer' now actually addressing the consumer in a language he can understand."

I think it's a wonderful thing, too, because those of limited means have perhaps the most to gain from becoming more financially savvy. If you have little or nothing saved for retirement, learning about the options you have and perhaps socking away a few thousand now in some stocks or mutual funds could net you a significantly improved retirement down the road.

McCracken reviewed some brokerages' recent messages, such as the "Working Wealth" campaign of Citigroup's (NYSE:C) Smith Barney unit, which aims to explain how money can make money. Also praised were recent Charles Schwab (NASDAQ:SCHW) messages, such as the ad saying "owning a house worth a million bucks is not a retirement plan." (I conveyed a similar message in "$1 Million May Not Be Enough.")

The investor perspective
So how should we think about this kind of new approach for brokerages? Well, as an investor or possible investor in the industry, I'd welcome it. By reaching out to the less affluent, the companies stand to bring in many more customers. Each person may not have that much in assets to manage, but there are a heck of a lot of middle-income people. Think of Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT). While it may not enjoy the fat 29% profit margins of, say, Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), it still does very well because of its high volume.

Many companies can do well by broadening their customer base. McDonald's (NYSE:MCD), for example, is targeting more sophisticated diners in many regions by offering upscale coffee through a partnership with Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (NASDAQ:GMCR). General Motors' (NYSE:GM) Cadillac division now offers SUVs, clearly appealing to a wider swath of consumers than before.

Is there any downside to all this? You bet. When exclusive brands start reaching out to the masses, they can end up losing some of their cachet, becoming less exclusive. When this happens, they may also lose some of their pricing power, due to a diminished brand status. This is worth watching out for, if you're an interested investor.

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Charles Schwab is a Stock Advisor recommendation. Wal-Mart and Microsoft are Inside Value picks.

Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian owns shares of Microsoft, Wal-Mart, and McDonald's.