Bankers have gotten a piece of marketing religion that somehow did not apply when banks were banks, brokers were brokers, and it didn't seem to take so much effort to perform above average.

With a fervor rivaled only by their headlong rush toward the Internet and other alternative means of delivering services, bankers have taken on branding as a crusade for the late 1990s.

Concerned about - if not panicked by - powerful nonbank competitors like American Express and Merrill Lynch, and egged on by a slew of marketing experts and management consultants, bankers are becoming conversant in the meaning of brand management and brand equity, the relationship between a quality image and customer loyalty, the differences between strength and stature, recognition and esteem.

The awareness and attention are appropriate to the times and to trends that cut across industries and borders: How could a NationsBank or Citibank go national or global without the kind of recognition that a Coca- Cola or McDonald's enjoys?

But for all the attention branding has attracted in the last couple of years, and despite bankers' fears that the more diversified nonbanks have a leg up, the entire financial industry is playing catch-up to the likes of Coke and Pepsi, Disney and Sony.

Even as banks devote big money and attention to crucial identification decisions - BankBoston in place of Bank of Boston and BayBanks, the repositioning of State Street, the creation of "Key" as shorthand for KeyCorp and Key Banks - few if any show up in surveys of elite brands.

Only cards - American Express, MasterCard, Visa, and, in one listing published by Brandweek magazine, AT&T Universal - play in the big leagues. Occasionally a Citicorp or BankAmerica, NationsBank or Wells Fargo, Barclays or Deutsche Bank will appear low in a Top 50 or 100.

A lot of people are out to change that, and they are fighting history. Now it really matters.

"For one thing, there are too many banks, and this is an industry with a history of not having to compete," said Richard H. Evans, a Weston, Conn., consultant and former General Foods, Citibank, and Chase Manhattan Bank executive.

"To compete, you have to differentiate yourself," said Mr. Evans, author of a recent book from Lafferty Publications, "Growing Brand Loyalty." He and others view branding as a last, best hope against commoditization and the trap of competing solely on price.

Amid the technology explosion and financial deregulation, "the winners will be companies that can avoid the image of a commodity provider," said Charles Wendel, president of Financial Institutions Consulting, New York, which started a brand consulting unit a year ago. "The brand as a tool to build relationships is a powerful way to do that."

It is going to be easier said than done.

"Branding is a way for a company to say who it is and what it does," said Les Dinkin, managing partner of NBW Consulting, Westport, Conn. "But a bank is very different from McDonald's, which has a limited product set that is tangible, has physical qualities, and is predefined."

"For the first time, we are seeing a disintermediation of the (bank) brand in the mind of the consumer," said Allen R. DeCotiis, president of Payment Systems Inc., a Tampa-based research and consulting firm that has mobilized to confront the issue with its Brand 2000 study and a related consulting practice that Mr. Evans is a part of.

Mr. DeCotiis said an increasingly confused public has come to relate more closely to "access brands" like credit cards or automated teller networks or home banking systems, or to companies like Fidelity Investments that trumpet 800-number services and can loom larger than any one financial institution.

The banks' identity may even be negative. Mr. DeCotiis has held focus groups in which wariness and hostility toward banks had seemed to overtake their historically caring and friendly image. One participant lamented that a bank was once like "a church or a palace."

"At least that had a place in the consumer's mind," Mr. DeCotiis said. "Now they are comparing a logo on a card to what was perceived as a visibly safe place."

"We each do our financial services in our own way," Mr. Dinkin. "What is done is in many ways defined by the individual customer. It is very difficult to engender consistency and standardization across the length and breadth of the product line."

Contributing to banks' brand weakness are the fragmentation of the market and the fact that consumers spread their business among multiple institutions, said Chris Jaworski, senior consultant at Response Analysis Corp., Princeton, N.J.

Because traditional market-perception measures have not applied well to banking, insurance, and other fragmented markets, Response Analysis developed a new measurement system called Considered Competitor Value. The theory is that while there is a plethora of possible providers, consumers make choices based on what they happen to be familiar with.

"Our modeling of value positions for banks consistently shows that reputation is not as predictive of value as product quality, service quality, and price" - another sign of the industry's brand weakness, Mr. Jaworski said.

Branding "is something much deeper than a name, logo, or slogan," Lynn Upshaw, author of "Building Brand Identity," said in speech at the recent Cardtech/Securtech conference. "It is a working model for a long- term customer relationship that leads to profitability." It is a "promise kept."

For the uninitiated, the consultants offer plenty of schematics. Mr. Upshaw's shows that the road to a long-term relationship begins with awareness and progresses through familiarity, trial, intimacy, and trust.

Mr. Evans maps it this way: awareness, image, consideration, trial, preference, adoption, loyalty.

Bankers are turning to consultants because they are in uncharted territory. They are coming to realize, said Mr. DeCotiis, that they "can't create a relationship before a brand. The brand must come first."

Payment Systems Inc. will soon publish its first "brand excellence index," which will apply to financial companies the rigor that advertising and marketing firms like Young & Rubicam have used in assessing brands across the board. But where only a few financial names show up in general studies, PSI will look at dozens - how they stack up against each other and against nonfinancial entities.

The experts refer to DREF - difference, relevance, esteem, and familiarity - as the components of brand equity. "We already know that across all DREF categories, banks are at the low end," Mr. DeCotiis said.

"Banks generally don't rank very high versus other industries," Mr. Dinkin said. "To the extent they are competing with securities and insurance and other nonbank providers, they need to differentiate and brand themselves so that when customers have a need the banks are, hopefully, at the top of the short list."

Mutual funds, stockbrokers, airlines, rental cars, breakfast cereals - each category has a number of companies with "top of mind" status. Banking does not.

"At this point, we have no good examples of a bank creating a compelling brand identity," and one has to look outside the industry for useful case studies, Mr. Jaworski said.

The holy grail of "brand equity" has a financial-performance ring for good reason. It is believed to have a direct link to companies' market value, or at least to certain qualities necessary to boost it. Mr. DeCotiis said PSI is probing brand equity as it relates to customer acquisition, retention, and overall profitabilty.

Mr. Upshaw defined brand equity as "the value above its commodity value" and "the value above other brands."

"The market values brand names, or brand equity, higher than other commodity-oriented businesses," said Mr. Dinkin. But a brand is not built in a day: "It has to be ingrained into what (a company does) every day, customer to customer, transaction to transaction. Be consistent with the branding and deliver value, or lose credibility."

Daniel Murray, another former New York bank executive working with PSI, said brand management is too often viewed as unidimensional, having to do mostly with advertising and awareness. In fact it cuts across several processes - familiarity, positioning, internal employee communications, and those transactional "moments of truth."

"Creative advertising is necessary but not sufficient," Mr. Evans said. "You have to deliver on the promise."

Where does all this talk of multidimensionality and globalization leave smaller banks?

"In fact, small banks are branded," Mr. Dinkin said. "They may not have made the investments and spent money on corporate advertising campaigns, but they have the asset."

"Local banks will have to invest in local brand strength," said Mr. DeCotiis. "For example, Barnett (Banks Inc.) has a bigger interest in building its brand in Florida than Citibank does."

But the Citibanks and Merrill Lynches and American Expresses - what James Cerruti of the New York identity firm Diefenbach Elkins has described as emerging "megabrands" - inevitably will encroach. The brand equity of consolidating companies with growing market shares will by definition get richer.

"While this is a relatively new phenomenon in the U.S., it is commonplace" in other countries where "institutional brands of four or five major financial services players are already part of the fabric of society." Mr. Cerruti predicted a similar consolidation in the United States within five years.

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