For the past three years, KeyCorp has positioned itself not as a bank, but as a consumer marketing machine. Catchy slogans, juke-box ATMs, and celebrity pitchmen have become closely associated with the Cleveland-based banking company.
But the resignation of Stephen A. Cone, the creative force behind those and other offbeat efforts, has some wondering whether KeyCorp can remain on the trail he blazed.
Mr. Cone, 47, resigned last week for a top job at Fidelity Investments. He joined KeyCorp in 1994 after senior-level stints at Citicorp, American Express Co., and Epsilon, a data base marketing firm.
"The marketing function at Key is not on auto-pilot," said Douglas Trott, president of Taddingstone Consulting, Toronto. To replace Mr. Cone, the bank will "need someone with the same passion."
And, he predicted, "It won't be someone from inside banking."
KeyCorp officials said last week that they intend to continue what Mr. Cone started. The bank is searching internally and externally for a successor, a spokesman said. Meantime, Todd L. Thompson, a senior vice president, is running its 150-member marketing team.
As chief marketing officer, Mr. Cone oversaw a bevy of functions, including direct advertising and data base marketing, television and display advertising, and a consumer research group. He also sat on the bank's 11-member management committee.
He is credited with launching offbeat television commercials that de- emphasized Key's banking roots. The spots starred actor Anthony Edwards from the hit show "ER" and ended with the tag line "Key. For a New America."
Also under Mr. Cone, the bank published glossy annual reports formatted like consumer magazines. Key turned heads last year when it put a photo of Charles Schwab-the founder of one of banking's fiercest competitors-on the cover of its annual report.
According to the spokesman, awareness of the Key brand doubled in new markets from 1995 to 1997. Executives who worked with Mr. Cone said his un- banker-like ways paid off.
"It's a tremendous reflection of Key's commitment to the investment business that Fidelity thought they should hire Steve," said W. Christopher Maxwell, former head of Key's mutual funds and now an independent consultant.
Mr. Cone, for his part, expressed confidence that Key will stay in the forefront of financial services marketing. Chief executive officerRobert Gillespie and his team have found "marketing religion," Mr. Cone said. "That's not going to change because I'm leaving."
Mr. Cone's last move at Key was to create a new tag line-"Help at every turn"-that will be used in ads to be televised during the Olympic games next month. They feature Mr. Edwards, who is under contract as a spokesman for the next two years.
"Many of the benefits that Steve gave to KeyCorp won't go away merely because he's leaving," said Michael Mayo, an analyst at Credit Suisse First Boston. "He's helped get the ball rolling on many initiatives, which involved other people at the company."
But, Mr. Mayo added, "it doesn't mean they are where they need to be. The fight is still on to develop a superior brand name in banking."
Meanwhile, some of Mr. Cone's direct reports also have left recently, including one of his recruits, Julie Adamson, and Leopold Toralbella, head of consumer finance marketing, the spokesman confirmed. He acknowledged KeyCorp slightly decreased its marketing budget in 1997 but said it has increased it for 1998. He declined to disclose the sums.
At Fidelity, Mr. Cone will be president of the customer market and development group within the Boston-based fund giant's personal investments and brokerage unit.
"They have a very sophisticated and large technology infrastructure which excites me," Mr. Cone said. "There are a heck of lot of ways you can use marketing to get the message across those channels."
And those who know Mr. Cone say he is likely to bring a touch of Hollywood to his new employer's marketing strategy.
"I wonder if Fidelity will get George Clooney," Mr. Trott said.