Big banks try and make nice with you

By David Ellis, staff writer

NEW YORK ( -- Don't look now, but your big bank wants you back.

Much like a cheating lover trying to make up for past transgressions, some of the nation's top lenders have attempted to make peace with consumers lately.

Top lenders like Citigroup are trying to bring their customers back into the fold.

Earlier this month, Citigroup (C, Fortune 500) launched a company-sponsored web blog that details the various efforts the New York City-based bank is making to help get the company back on track. Readers are also free to post their own thoughts.

And if you're one of the millions of Americans captivated by the Winter Olympics, chances are you saw Wells Fargo's (WFC, Fortune 500) "With You When..." campaign, which features images of parents dropping their kids off at college and a woman who has achieved her dream of becoming a veterinarian.

"Consumers told us what they wanted more than anything from a financial institution with whom they've worked was they wanted to have the feeling that the institution was with you," said Sylvia Reynolds, Wells Fargo's chief marketing officer.

But given the sustained level of public outrage over taxpayer bailouts and big bonuses for Wall Street, big banks will have a tough time reconnecting with consumers.

Americans tend to have a negative association with three of the country's largest banks: Citigroup, Bank of America (BAC, Fortune 500) and JPMorgan Chase (JPM, Fortune 500), according to a recent survey conducted by market research firm YouGov. Even the image of Wells Fargo, which was positively viewed by those polled, is close to its lowest level since the crisis started.

A bank's ability to improve its image in the minds of consumers though is certainly not helped by the way Americans bank nowadays, said branding expert Alan Siegel.

Unlike in the past where a bank customer might head to their local branch to cash a check, large numbers of consumers today now opt for the convenience of using the nearby ATM instead.

"You have become a number," said Siegel, chairman of the strategic branding firm Siegel+Gale. "You no longer have a relationship with anyone at a bank."

That's not to say big banks can't, or won't, be able to repair ties with disgruntled account holders or former customers that moved their money to the community bank down the street or a local credit union.

In fact, marketing experts said big banks might want to take a page from the ad campaign of Ally Bank. The online lender has managed to harvest billions of dollars worth of deposits since it was first launched in May 2009 by parent company GMAC -- even though GMAC has been bailed out more than once by the government.

In their barrage of television, online and print advertisements, Ally successfully focused on a message of transparency. Marketing experts said that unless the nation's banks can deliver a similar tone of accountability and clarity, it will be hard to win back the trust of frustrated customers.

"They are going to have to spend a lot more time building trust at the individual level," said Kent Grayson, professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

The nation's top banks however, have been slow to get such messages out. Citigroup, Bank of America and Chase have only spent a combined $690 million on advertisements through last September, according to Kantar Media.

Compare that to same period in 2008 when the same three spent a combined $1.11 billion.

Top lenders, of course, may very well be waiting for the public firestorm to blow over or trying to craft a pitch-perfect message. They may also be more inclined to spend money on marketing once there is more proof the economy and their financial fortunes are really recovering.

But by waiting, banks only risk alienating their customers even further, according to John Coleman, CEO and founder of The VIA Group, a Portland, Maine-based advertising firm that has worked with Canada's TD Bank.

"[Banks] can only sit on the sidelines for so long," Coleman said.  To top of page

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