Around St. Louis, Allegiant Bancorp is known as the "animal bank" because of an advertising campaign featuring fish, cats, and, for a new Internet service, a mouse.

Having been named the official bank of the Super Bowl champions, Allegiant now is adding a ram to the marketing menagerie. Bank of America Corp. dropped the St. Louis Rams football team this year to focus its sports marketing on the Cardinals, the city's baseball team, and chose a local bank as its successor.

"We signed a five-year deal, because we think this is a going to be a great partnership," said Phil Thomas, a vice president with the Rams.

Many banks have marketing relationships with professional sports teams, but few the size of $827 million-asset Allegiant have paired with organization as high-profile as the Rams. At the major-sports level, bank sponsors usually are national or regional companies such as Bank of America Corp., Bank One Corp., and Comerica, the official bank of the Detroit Tigers baseball team and hockey's Red Wings.

Wayne Mielke, a spokesman for $41 billion-asset Comerica, said its affiliation with the Tigers has helped the company convey its commitment to Detroit - precisely what Allegiant wants to do in St. Louis.

Comerica's relationship with the Tigers "has tremendous value," Mr. Mielke said. "Clearly, the name recognition has benefited us in our hometown."

Shaun Hayes, Allegiant's president and chief executive officer, said his company's connection with the Rams reinforces his primary marketing objective: to establish Allegiant as St. Louis' No. 1 hometown bank. Indeed, Mr. Hayes says the only condition for the bank's advertising is that it stress Allegiant's roots in the community.

"We are still a St. Louis bank, and that is all we plan to be," he said.

That identification may become a life-or-death issue for Allegiant, Mr. Hayes said. The city is still reeling from the loss of five of its biggest local banks - Boatmen's Bancshares, Mercantile Bancorp, Roosevelt Financial Corp., Mark Twain Bancshares, and Magna Group Inc. - to mergers. Mr. Hayes said he thinks bigger upheavals may be on the horizon.

He said Firstar Corp. and Union Planters Corp. - which along with Bank of America began buying up St. Louis banks in the mid-1990s - probably will become takeover targets themselves, and that without strong recognition and bottom-line results Allegiant may get caught in the shakeout.

"We are in a market where there has been a lot of consolidation, and I expect to see more. We have to have superior growth in earnings, or we may not be here as an independent bank in the future."

If anything, Allegiant plans to buy rather than be bought. Just three weeks after signing its deal with the Rams, Allegiant announced that it was buying Equality Bancorp, the holding company for Equality Bank, Missouri's oldest thrift. The deal is expected to close this year and would give Allegiant assets of $1.15 billion and 23 branches. It now has 16 branches.

Allegiant has installed six automated teller machines in the TWA Dome, the Rams' home field, has its name on the stadium scoreboard, will distribute 66,000 mouse pads at an Oct. 1 Rams home game to promote its new Internet banking service, and plans to begin offering a checking account featuring Ram-logo checks this year.

These consumer-targeted awareness boosters may do double-duty by helping to raise Allegiant's profile within the banking industry. No analysts cover the company, and its stock performance has been hampered by low volume.

Allegiant's 1999 earnings were a record $5.4 million, and it is on pace to surpass that mark in 2000; its first-half earnings were $3.2 million. Assets, meanwhile, have risen 36% since the billboards' premiere.

Mr. Hayes said the affiliation with the Rams has lifted Allegiant's marketing to a level previously unimagined for the nine-year-old company, which before July had its marketing department on a shoestring budget. He would not give the budget for the Rams project.

Still, bank officials say the animal-theme campaign from the low-budget days, developed by the Hughes Group agency in St. Louis, has been a success.

For the past 18 months, four huge highway billboards have played up Allegiant as the hometown alternative to bigger, acquisition-minded banks that are cast as interlopers. One of them features three fat cats and a trim, athletic one (Allegiant). Another shows fish of diminishing size bent on devouring the fish in front of them, while a smiling fish representing Allegiant swims alone. The tag says, "Pledged to a better way of banking."

"The fish have gone over huge," said Nora K. Macalady, vice president of marketing at Allegiant. "They say that we are a part of the community and we're not going to be swallowed up." They were so popular that the smiling-fish image has been emblazoned on Allegiant ATM cards.

Kathy Wakefield, who manages the Allegiant account for the Hughes Group, said using animal characters has "added to the bank's name recognition in a fun and approachable way."

Allegiant "has allowed us to be extremely creative," she said. "It has never tied our hands."


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