Taking a cue from politics, some community bankers are discovering the attack ad.
In almost every major metropolitan market, a small bank has replaced its conventional advertisements for certificates of deposit or free checking with in-your-face swipes at bigger regional competitors.
"We call it guerrilla advertising," said Edwin F. Hale Sr., chairman and chief executive officer of First Mariner Bancorp in Baltimore. "We're making a frontal assault on the bigger banks."
Aggressive talk like that is becoming more common. Whether in advertising, merger and acquisition strategy, or recruiting executive talent, it points to a growing resolve among small-bank CEOs not to be left in the dust of their industry's consolidation.
Take Etowah Bank of Canton, Ga., aiming some not-so-subtle jabs at competitors in the Atlanta area.
In a series of newspaper ads, $330 million-asset Etowah thinly disguises SunTrust Banks as "Big Trust" and Regions Bank as "Rich One's Bank." Wachovia Corp. earns the nickname "Walk All Over You."
Executives from the supposedly fictitious banks hide their faces behind grotesque masks, including one designed to resemble the Big Bad Wolf.
"I think that humor sells better than some of the traditional ads," said Harold L. Swindell, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Etowah Bank. "You get positive and negative reaction to humor, but at least you get reaction."
"People thought they were funny," said Rick Wemmers, president of Wemmers Communications, an advertising agency in Atlanta that created Etowah's ads. "There is a significant percentage of a bank's population who feel ... that the new big bank has come to town and swallowed up the local folks."
Mr. Wemmers, whose agency works for eight community banks, said he is trying similar ads for other clients. He admitted that the strategy allows advertisers to have a little more fun with bank ads.
"Traditionally, community banks do things of a standard nature-save money, support your Little League," he said. Mergers by large banks "have offered an opportunity to say something new about why you should bank with one bank over another."
First Mariner, a $142 million-asset bank that marks its second anniversary next month, has become a household name in Baltimore through its frequent radio, television, and newspaper ads. The bank spends about $300,000 a year on advertising, a large amount for a bank its size, according to experts.
Mr. Hale, something of a local hero in Maryland's largest city, often derides larger banks. His latest TV commercials showcase ordinary people saying they switched to First Mariner from Signet Bank, NationsBank Corp., and First Union Corp. Mr. Hale then explains there is a reason "why your neighbors are switching."
"I think community banks are going after the larger banks because the larger banks are appearing to be more vulnerable than ever," said Kevin B. Tynan, president of Tynan Marketing Inc. in Chicago. "I think the community banks are picking their fights."
Besides regular television, newspaper, and radio spots, community banks are also delving into direct mail, which some experts say can be more effective than mass advertising.
In Steelton, Pa., more than 4,500 residents received a letter explaining how Mechanics Savings and Loan would step in where Mellon Bank left off. Mellon closed its only Steelton branch last month.
Mechanics Savings and Loan used the mail and billboards that asked "Has your bank let you down?" to bring in new customers, said vice president Mike Leonzo.
"Banks are beginning to discover marketing," said William Arnold, principal at the consulting firm Towers Perrin. "Coke and Pepsi have been at it for a fair amount of time."
Craig Metz, who headed Bank South Corp.'s marketing department until its takeover by NationsBank last year, said community banks have to be careful about how they use the attack strategy.
Mr. Metz, who now heads marketing for ING North America, is credited with helping Bank South double its market share of deposits with a campaign against a fictional amalgamation of its competitors, which it called "Megabank." Although the ads poked fun at "Megabank," he said the focus usually was on what Bank South had to offer.
"It should be funny, it should be tasteful," Mr. Metz said. "You had better give them a darn good reason why they should change banks."