Bank marketing executives have a tough decision to make: On one hand, they need to cut costs due to recessionary pressures; on the other, depositors appear more open than ever to change their banking provider, so there could be more opportunity than usual for an effective marketing campaign.

According to The Nielsen Company, financial services ad spending dropped 10 percent last year and this year won't be much better due to so many mortgage players leaving the game and because of consolidation. Other estimates vary, but most predict a percentage decline in the mid- to high-single digits.

Not all will be cutting back, though. TD Bank launched its new brand positioning campaign on the East Coast late last year after officially merging Commerce Bank into TD Banknorth. The branding campaign will cost upwards of $20 million just for this first part of a two-phase launch.

"I think it's a great opportunity because people, generally, don't have a tremendous focus on [bank brands]-but they do now; there's tremendous heightened awareness," says the bank's chief marketing officer John Cunningham. "I think we'll be in a great position having launched the brand and been able to invest significant resources into making sure people understand that the value proposition remains intact."

Rilla Delorier, chief marketing officer for SunTrust Banks, is thinking along the same lines as TD's Cunningham. SunTrust recently launched its new brand positioning "Live Solid, Bank Solid" in mid-November (See AdBeat). "We see this as a great opportunity because people are reconsidering where they are putting their money," Delorier says. "A line that we've used a lot is that the bank that everyone is looking for is the bank that we've always been. Given that, we need to be telling our story."

Citigroup analyst Catriona Fallon says it's too early to tell how many other banks will take this approach because budgets are typically set in advance and lag the economy. But she notes that "it's possible that you will see some financial services firms looking to increase and strengthen their brand in 2009," but it would be done on a case-by-case basis, rather than the whole of the industry.

Also this year, several of the nation's biggest banks will have to deal with building brands after mega-mergers. Wells Fargo, which acquired Wachovia over the fall, launched its new co-brand campaign, "One team, twice as strong," at the beginning of January.

"Whether it's about the ability to win the trust of our clients through cross-sell, which is what Wells Fargo is known for, or to lead in service awards and results as Wachovia has, we've got probably the strongest franchise for sales and service in the business; that's a great message to get out there." says Martin Skea, who heads Wells Fargo's marketing for the Wealth Management Group.

Still, Ron Shevlin, an analyst with Aite Group, says banks must be creative about how they spend money. Many consumers are already conducting their own research as they prepare a move, so the trick for banks will be converting that interest into new customers. "I think that if anything, the decline in ad spending is an absolutely smart thing for these guys to do," he says. "There's demand creation and there's demand capture; now it's more about how do you capture the demand that's out there."

Take the example of American Express, which is becoming a bank holding company. In October the company announced it would scale back investment spending on technology, marketing and business development by $1 billion in 2009. Part of the reasoning is that AmEx already has such strong brand awareness, it can focus on more targeted marketing. Since the brand is so well known, "that gives us a little bit of room in that we don't need to gain awareness that we exist or that we have payment solutions for consumer and corporate," says spokesperson Joanna Lambert. "But what we do need to do is be more prudent in how we invest money for growth." To that she adds, "very often in tough economic times, or when budgets are tighter, the most creative and innovative ideas emerge."

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