Banks seeking to broaden their market for investment products are turning to an international audience -- right here in the United States.

Building on efforts begun over the past decade to encourage immigrants to open checking accounts and take out loans, financial institutions are reaching out to segments of the population that until recently had been largely neglected by investment product marketers.

"People have awakened to the fact that these groups represent a significant part of their market," said Jeff Liekhus, an analyst at Market Trends, a Seattle research firm. As a result, there has been "significant activity" among financial institutions targeting ethnic groups as likely consumers of banking and investment services in recent years, Mr. Liekhus said.

Last month Bank of America Corp. retained specialty advertising agencies to focus on the Hispanic and Asian markets. The opportunities are much larger in the wake of the old BankAmerica Corp.'s merger with NationsBank Corp., said Maxine Matteo, marketing customer group manager of the Charlotte, N.C., company. "We've made a commitment to ourselves that anything we do from a campaign perspective will have an ethnic component," Ms. Matteo said.

That policy is fueled largely by the success of a deposit and investment account campaign aimed at Asian-Americans in the San Francisco area this year, she said.

The company did a mass mailing to the Asian community to coincide with the lunar new year. Ms. Matteo said account openings in designated Asian banking centers totaled 2,200, a 142% improvement from the previous year.

To date, the company's ethnic-targeted marketing has focused on traditional retail products, but the bank is gearing up to include investment products, said Ms. Matteo.

Near-term initiatives include investment seminars in branches serving the Asian community and foreign language signs and brochures.

Bank of America already has designated Hispanic and Asian centers in heavily ethnic areas, with marketing literature and signs in the appropriate languages and bilingual employees. It has made a point of hiring series 6 and series 7 brokers who speak Spanish, Korean, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Vietnamese.

The company is also expanding a language certification program, in place in the West, to its eastern markets.

Employees who do more than 60% or 70% of their transactions in a language other than English are given a language proficiency test; those who show a high level of aptitude get a "very generous" raise, said Ms. Matteo.

"We're starting to look at what other emerging markets are out there," said Ms. Matteo. For instance, the bank has a large Russian customer base in the Pacific Northwest, and similar ethnic pockets may eventually lend themselves to local campaigns.

For the most part, financial institutions have focused ethnic marketing on Hispanics and Asians, the fastest-growing segments of the U.S. population in size and purchasing power.

According to the Census Bureau, Hispanic median income reached $26,628 in 1997, up 4.5% from 1996, while the Hispanic population increased 3.7%. Median income among Asian households was $45,249 in 1997, a 2.2% increase, while the population grew 3.8%.

American median income overall was $37,005 in 1997, and the population grew by 0.9%. The University of Georgia's Selig Center for Economic Growth estimated that Hispanic and Asian buying power from 1990 to 1999 grew 84% and 102%, respectively. Buying power, defined as aggregate income after taxes, grew just 57% in the total population during that period.

San Francisco-based Charles Schwab & Co. targets Asians and Hispanics with dedicated branches. Located in California and New York, Schwab's five Asia-Pacific centers have Chinese signage and brochures, and Schwab's Web site allows trading in Chinese.

The discount broker's two Latin American centers, located in Miami and Puerto Rico, offer primarily English-language materials, but the sales representatives are bilingual and many come from Latin America.

"People are more comfortable talking about their financial affairs with someone who understands them culturally," said Schwab spokeswoman Marta von Loewenfeldt.

She said the Latin American centers had proven especially popular with international investors who phone the centers from countries in the Caribbean and Latin America.

Prompted by growth in the immigrant population, Chase Manhattan Corp. of New York has been touting its offshore mutual funds since March.

The funds are marketed in international communities in New York, including in the area surrounding the United Nations and in Asian communities in Manhattan and Queens, as well as in Texas along the Mexican border.

Cindy Gerhard, the banking company's managing director of global asset management, said that as the immigrant population has grown, there has been an increase in nonresident aliens consulting Chase's money managers. Offshore funds, which are not registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission, cannot be sold in the United States, but bank representatives can discuss the funds in one-on-one meetings with nonresident investors. All marketing literature has to be sent to a foreign address.

Still, some observers suggested that ethnic marketing of investment products, while increasing, is not yet widespread.

Paul Lubin, president and director of client research at Barry Leeds & Associates, a consulting firm in New York, said that while many banks had targeted checking accounts and loans to ethnic populations, fewer institutions are aggressively selling investments to ethnic minorities. "There is a huge potential market to be tapped," he said, adding that immigrants are generally viewed as less likely to buy securities or mutual funds than other segments of the population.

Some bankers say the ethnic segment is too lucrative to ignore, even if marketing is as simple as word of mouth.

"A common misconception about segment markets is they should not be targeted for nontraditional products," said Martha Vaughan, the director of Bank One Corp.'s Dallas-based specialty markets group. "But we've found them to be a very strong source of investment sales."

Ms. Vaughan said Bank One does not keep sales figures by ethnicity, but that investment product sales in predominantly ethnic markets had been strong.

Like Schwab, Bank One's strategy depends largely on instilling confidence in potential customers. "Investment sales are predicated on building personal relationships," said Ms. Vaughan. "That element of trust and relationship-building is stronger in the ethnic market."

Basically, that means hiring brokers who reflect the ethnicity of the neighborhood surrounding a bank branch. In Chicago, for example, brokers in various branches speak fluent Spanish, Polish, or Russian.

"If you have one strong Polish-speaking broker, word of mouth brings people in," said Ms. Vaughan.

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