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Bank pitches produce few home runs

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By ROBERT TRIGAUX, Times Business Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 21, 2003


Florida's biggest banks spend big bucks on slogans trying to convince the consumer how much stronger, smarter, more trustworthy or just harder working they are than their financial competitors.

Can you recognize who's pitching what slogan these days? Try matching the five banks most prominent in the Tampa Bay area with their current slogans.

* * *

1. Bank of America

2. Wachovia

3. SunTrust

4. AmSouth

5. SouthTrust

* * *

A. "The relationship people."

B. "You're not just another customer. We're not just another bank."

C. "Higher standards"

D. "Uncommon wisdom"

E. "How can we help you?"

* * *

Odds are, you did not come close to getting all five correct matches. I certainly had to call a number of these banks to double-check what phrase each was using these days. Read on for the answers.

Sometimes the slogans work. Sometimes -- no, quite often -- they fall flat. And sometimes, the business climate changes, and so must the slogan.

Eighteen months ago, Bank of America committed more than $100-million in advertising to build its image around a new slogan: "Embracing ingenuity." The phrase and its ads played off the now-dated theme that the bank was ahead of its peers in new products and services.

Don't like it? Apparently BofA executives lost faith in it as well. "Embracing ingenuity" -- a slogan that Enron might have picked -- has been canned. This week, a new slogan was unveiled, along with another $100-million ad budget to pitch it. This one, "Higher standards," offers a less cerebral touch but a lot more promise of service and, perhaps, an appeal to shaken public trust in business.

In Florida, Bank of America's "higher standards" theme comes with some risk. The good news is BofA's service became so bad in Florida several years ago that its improving service these days fits well with the idea of rising standards. The bad news is BofA customers will have their expectations raised by the new slogan. So BofA had better deliver.

Wachovia, also from North Carolina, unveiled its "Uncommon wisdom" slogan last year. The phrase appeared in the first ad spots to run on national television after Wachovia and First Union Corp. merged in September.

Atlanta's SunTrust (No. 2 in market share in the Tampa Bay area, but No. 3 behind Wachovia statewide) adopted the simple if boring "How can we help you?" slogan several years ago. The bank is not promoting it much these days. But you will hear it, most likely, if you call a customer service employee at the bank.

Alabama's SouthTrust opted for the l-o-n-g slogan ("You're not just another customer. We're not just another bank."). Not bad, especially if you like country song lyrics.

Last, but not least, Alabama's AmSouth has been a consistent promoter of its slogan, "the relationship people." As understandable themes go, it's pretty good. And in terms of consistency over the years, AmSouth's slogan may very well be the strongest in the Tampa Bay market. For now.

Not that slogans are everything. In the banking wars, another hot button is the offer of "free" checking. This week, Wachovia charged into that market in Florida with a statewide offer of an account that features no monthly service fee, no minimum balance, unlimited check writing, online banking (though online bill-paying is extra), unlimited teller service and a free VISA check card.

Wachovia first tested the product in Orlando and Georgia. Unlike similar "free" checking at other banks, Wachovia's account does not require a customer to sign up for direct deposit of paychecks to qualify for the account.

Karen Dee, Wachovia regional president for the Tampa Bay area, says the new account will appeal to Floridians, especially those who work for small businesses that do not provide direct deposit to their employees, who "might have been avoiding us because we did not have a free checking product."

Wachovia remains a new name in Florida that will take time to get established. A "free" checking product was a key weapon lacking, until now, in the bank's marketing arsenal. Duly armed, and with freshened marketing slogans at the ready, let the banking battles begin anew.

-- Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

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