A small midwestern bank is enlisting images of puppies, cows, and babies in an ambitious marketing campaign aimed at increasing its sales of proprietary mutual funds.

"You want a fund that's exuberant but doesn't stray too far from home," says one puppy-themed flier that the banking company, Amcore Financial Inc. of Rockford, Ill., started distributing to 80,000 customers this week. "A fund that's steadfastly loyal to its owners and intelligently managed. In short, you want the pick of the litter."

The puppy promotion is the third installment in a four-part series designed to boost sales of the bank's Vintage Mutual Funds family in the Midwest.

Amcore is also targeting 50,000 nonclients with a similar mailing. The marketing campaign targets clients and prospective clients in Wisconsin, northern Illinois, and Iowa.

Amcore is a $4 billion-asset company, and its money management arm, Amcore Investment Group, manages $4 billion of assets. Its Vintage funds manage $1.2 billion of assets.

An aggressive marketing approach is unusual for a small banking company like Amcore, but it has proven a success so far. The first two installments of the marketing campaign-one featuring a cow and the other, a baby - helped increase the fund family's assets by $30.1 million from January through May.

That is 43% of the $70 million goal for 1998, said Alan W. Kennebeck, president and chief executive officer of Amcore Investment Group.

The series of campaigns, each of which lasts about two months, includes mailings, statement stuffers, posters, and brochures. "People get so much financial information, we need to keep the Vintage image in front of our clients," Mr. Kennebeck said.

But one advertising executive who concentrates on banking and financial services said that Amcore runs the risk of appearing frivolous. Nonetheless, the company's creative approach will probably "strike a chord" with 20- and 30-somethings, said Jeffrey R. Hoffman, president of J.R. Hoffman Agency, Jacksonville, Fla.

Amcore Investment unveiled the campaign's first installment in the fall. It featured a black and white cow with a large black "V" printed on its side and used the slogan: "The Midwest's best-kept secret."

The second part of the series, begun in April, pictured a baby whose right hand formed a "V." The motto was: "At the rate our assets are growing, we won't be the Midwest's best-kept secret for long."

Amcore plans to launch the fourth installment in August. It will feature a cornfield with threatening storm clouds forming a "V" shape.

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