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Million dollar marketing move.

Million Dollar Marketing Move

Worthen National Bank Makes Aggressive Marketing Moves, While Confident First Commercial Stays The Course

"Right now, across Arkansas, history is being made," starts the latest Worthen National Bank television commercial. Panoramic aerial shots of the state whisk by as a Tina Turner sound alike sings the state's praises. At the end comes the bank's new tag line "Worthen -- Where Arkansas Banks."

It's all very hip and modern by Arkansas banking standards. You might even call it risky.

And that's the point, says Curt Bradbury, CEO of $2.1-billion-in-assets Worthen Banking Corp.

"Our strategy is to break through the clutter," says Bradbury. "With all due respect, bank advertising hesitates to do advertising that doesn't look and feel like bank advertising."

In what he called a historic step, Bradbury conducted a four-day-long press conference across the state in early March to announce Worthen would be putting all 10 of its affiliate banks under the title "Worthen National Bank."

That whistle-stop tour is part of a multimedia effort Bradbury hopes will ensure the smooth transition of what could be a potentially dangerous marketing strategy: becoming Arkansas' first statewide bank to rename and homogenize the logos of all Worthen affiliates.

Worthen's marketing move risks a backlash from small towns all across the state where residents may resent being linked even closer to a Little Rock bank and losing the sense of community identity built around a local banking tradition.

Taking risks is certainly not what Worthen's neck-and-neck rival First Commercial Corp. is up to.

A low key First Commercial is sticking to its two-year advertising plan that includes a variety of product-oriented print ads and, notably, only one new television spot in the past two years.

Despite Worthen's move, First Commercial has no plans to put its affiliate banks under one name.

"The reason is that in every case our banks are the dominant banks in those markets," says Senior Vice President Bill Garner.

For example, Garner says that market shares for bank loans reach highs of 66.1 percent in Benton, 55.6 percent in Conway and 51.7 percent in Hot Springs.

And unlike Worthen, which nearly collapsed with the demise of Bevill Bresler Schulman in 1985, a confident First Commercial has steadily logged record profits through the 1980s, strengthening its image of stability. So why launch a potentially expensive ad campaign?

Worthen won't say how much it's spending for the revamping but does say its advertising budget is less in 1991 than it was in 1990.

But local media reps contacted estimate Worthen's ad budget could be as high as $1 million.

They say Worthen spent at least $135,000 on recent television spots and reportedly will spend as much on print ads. Add on radio and outside television market advertising and production costs for the television commercial -- plus add in this year's upcoming campaigns -- and you're pushing seven figures.

So far, Bradbury says, the new name change has paid off. He's heard nothing but positive responses, and local banking analysts concur. A small-town, populist backlash is nowhere in sight.

"If it had been a flop, it would have been our biggest," Bradbury says.

Score one for Worthen in the latest skirmish in the ongoing foot race between First Commercial and Worthen to see who's the biggest and the best in the state's banking community.

Top Of The Mind

It's a relaxed and confident Curt Bradbury who leaned back in his conference room chair last week to discuss Worthen's marketing strategies.

Unlike the overworked -- some would say touchy, hypersensitive -- Curt Bradbury of the late 1980s, a period when Worthen was reeling from $235 million in potential bad loans, the new-and-improved Curt Bradbury of the 1990s is the picture of confidence and openness with reporters.

"I'm the worst offender on busting the budget," says Bradbury. He isn't shy about going against ledger books, or tradition, or other people's suggestions. Bradbury calls the marketing shots at Worthen.

It started when he first became president of the bank in 1986. Bradbury quickly exerted his control over the bank's advertising and fired the Brooks-Pollard Agency and hired Resneck Stone Ward.

Today, while he values recommendations from Millie Ward, who represents the agency, and Kay Cook, Worthen's senior vice president and marketing director, Bradbury literally goes off alone to make the final advertising decisions.

Bradbury had vetoed the idea of consolidating all of Worthen's branches under one name a few years ago because he didn't feel the bank was ready.

Last summer, Worthen's purchase of Independence Federal Bank and its 20 statewide branches triggered the idea of renaming the bank's affiliates again. After extensive market research that included phone surveys and focus groups, Bradbury and his top CEOs from around the state decided the time was ripe.

The idea is to "brand the bank and give it statewide identity -- that's the essential point. That's the strategy," Bradbury says.

The goal is "top of the mind awareness" in market lingo: getting the largest number of people to recall Worthen's campaigns before any other bank's. At this point, the marketing effort is working, according to Worthen's reports.

"We've got it," says Bradbury.

And going statewide with one name and one logo should strengthen Worthen's presence on the top of the public's mind.

As well, consolidating the bank's image under one name will bring enormous savings -- roughly between $500,000 and $1 million this year alone, guesses Bradbury.

(One drawback is the close to seven-digit figure Worthen will have to spend to change signs at individual banks.)

The real challenge of the campaign, however, was "making sure people in communities would realize the people they relied on would still be there," says Ward.

To head off any concerns locals might feel about the loss of a familiar name, Worthen has produced a series of full-page print ads that feature local newspapers, school pennants and town populations to stress its commitment to communities.

To keep a local touch, there will still be targeted advertising, including direct mailings in individual markets to reinforce the more generic, image-building statewide ads.

Commercials Second

While Worthen's advertising campaigns are personally spearheaded by Bradbury, marketing at First Commercial is a different story.

Until his retirement last December, Chairman and CEO Bill Bowen personally projected a strong, stable image of the bank, and First Commercial's advertising reinforced that image with its low-key, no-nonsense approach.

Mild-mannered current Chairman and CEO Barnett Grace is continuing in this tradition, albeit with a lower public profile than the gregarious Bowen.

"We feel the most important thing is customer service," says Grace. "Advertising augments that in announcing new products or services."

The two banks couldn't be more different in their approaches.

While First Commercial's major advertising runs on two-year cycles, Worthen talks of spring and fall campaigns.

While First Commercial considers advertising an important secondary tool, Worthen utilizes it as a major asset.

"Our approach is pretty much an effort to be no-nonsense -- to emphasize strengths," says Garner as he looks over image profiles of First Commercial's customers.

While First Commercial continues to target the three primary motivators that it feels draw customers to a new bank, Worthen is consolidating the whole statewide banking network under one logo.

And while First Commercial's print ads and television spots feature a three-dimensional box with bold letters stating the tag line "The First Bank," Worthen is now touting itself as "Where Arkansas Banks."

Garner admits Worthen has led very aggressive campaigns in the past few years in terms of money, volume and originality and says, "I think what they have done is pretty smart considering" what the bank had to overcome. With its latest campaign, Worthen is showing no signs of letting up.

Meanwhile, First Commercial has no plans to respond, and that helps boost the bottom line. Garner estimates First Commercial spends 60 percent of what Worthen devotes to advertising.

Garner says if First Commercial began to see a slippage in its market share it would consider a change, but to spend more now would be a matter of diminishing return.

"We will continue to study all our options," says First Commercial CEO Grace, "but currently we're happy to allow our local banks to continue to manage."

Ambivalent Attitudes

At this point, most bank observers view Worthen's name change and its impact on the continuing battle between the state's two biggest banks as a non-event.

"First Commercial isn't necessarily trying to stir up the water," says Ellis Sloan, a portfolio analyst for Meridian Management. "Their market share is enviable, and I think their approach is more subtle and maybe for that reason Worthen is going a different route."

Sloan further says, "They run the risk of appearing to be a follower if they change the names of the local banks in a fashion similar to Worthen's move." One option, says Sloan, would be for First Commercial "to slowly over time change names in a quiet way if they would want to at all."

But First Commercial may never change.

While national research shows positive feedback for banks that operate under one name, there are similar benefits for banks that go the other route.

"Nobody likes change, but people get over it," says Henry Coffey, a bank analyst with J.C. Bradford in Nashville. Coffey says that while bankers pay attention to what a name is, "In the end, people don't really care."

And Arkansas locals agree.

"I don't believe customers are as conscious of a name of an organization as they are to the service, convenience and rates that the organization is offering," says G.L. Lieblong, chairman of the board at Independence Federal in Jonesboro.

"Ten years ago maybe, but not today. The banking industry has gone through dramatic changes, and the loyalty is not in place like it once was."

Bradbury says response to Worthen's latest campaign has been massive; the name change has not sparked much feedback either way.

"When Worthen first bought First National Bank here several years ago there was some reaction," says Nelson Barnett, executive director of the Batesville Chamber of Commerce, recalling local opposition when safe deposit box rates rose to Little Rock price levels.

"But the current management of the bank seems to be doing a really good job of taking care of its customers," says Barnett, and "also of being active in the community, so I think that is giving a good feeling about the bank also."

And that makes Bradbury feel good.

"You've got to have courage," says Bradbury. "Millie could go produce a quick, cheap ad with a smiling teller just like everybody else."

But that's not for Bradbury.

And Worthen's approach isn't for First Commercial.

"We will continue to make our decisions on parameters" of our own, says Garner, "regardless of what they're doing."

So while Worthen flies high capturing shots of the state, First Commercial has its advertising roots firmly planted in the ground.

And perhaps the real history in the making isn't Worthen's name change, but Worthen and First Commercial's struggle for banking dominance that has its base in vastly divergent marketing strategies.

PHOTO : BANKING ON BRADBURY: CEO Curt Bradbury kicked off an aggressive new marketing campaign in early March at the Central Flying Service and then took off in a plane around the state to announce to all Worthen affiliates they would begin operating under the title Worthen National Bank.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Journal Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Worthen National Bank's aggressive marketing ploy
Author:Rengers, Carrie
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Apr 8, 1991
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