Last December 63,000 affluent Spanish-speaking households in Florida received a glossy magazine featuring a cover photo of Bob Vila, a Miami native of Cuban extraction, in their mailboxes.
Though the cover price was $3.95, the Spanish-language publication was delivered free, along with a letter of introduction from Citibank's Florida president.
The magazine, with numerous objective-looking articles, it is actually built to deliver marketing messages to potential customers. The articles were prepared by a custom publisher and approved by the bank.
"People get a lot of junk mail," said Joseph T. Curcio, vice president for U.S. multicultural marketing for Citibank. "This magazine is informative, entertaining, and has an extended shelf life. We think it's a different way to get noticed.
"It has been successfully used in acquiring leads for investment follow- up," Mr. Curcio added.
In fact, the May issue will feature an article titled "Conquering the World of Investing." Readers are given a phone number to schedule an appointment for a free personal investing plan.
"It's more than a warm lead, it's a hot lead," Mr. Curcio said.
Responses to previous investment product pitches were higher than projected, he said. Avances has also proved effective in pitching other bank products, he added.
Citibank is not alone in using custom publishing. In the last 18 months KeyCorp introduced three magazines that Time Inc. produces for it. Many companies in industries such as health care have long embraced the concept.
Three years ago financial services companies were not doing much in custom publishing. That changed with deregulation and heightened competition, said Jack Griffin, publisher and general manager of Des Moines-based Meredith Custom Publishing, one of the oldest and largest custom publishers in the United States.
Financial services companies are looking for ways to communicate more complex information while cross-selling to their customers, Mr. Griffin said. "There are a lot of players and a lot of initiatives, but at the end of the day the consumers will decide who survives," he said.
At both KeyCorp and Citibank, executives are bullish on their custom publishing projects.
Citibank said it was intrigued when a large custom publisher, McMurry Publishing Inc. in Phoenix, presented the idea of Avances, a Spanish- language magazine. Mr. Curcio said it was appealing that McMurry would develop the bulk of the editorial material but let Citibank customize as much as it liked.
McMurry keeps prices down by syndicating its material; the same package is offered to banks serving noncompeting markets. McMurry said it charges 50 cents to $1 per copy.
Publishing industry observers point out that companies using custom- published magazines are in the driver's seat during negotiation. Many publishing companies are scrambling into the segment, so margins are dropping. Banks and other companies provide the audience, syndicated or recycled material reduces production costs, and cash flows come quickly.
Produce the magazine in-house would cost Citibank two to three times McMurry's fee, said Christopher McMurry, chief operating officer of McMurry Publishing.
Publications help build relationships, he added. "Magazines are a friendly medium. It's not a hard-sell approach." Unlike television or billboards, he noted, magazines provide a format to explore issues in adequate depth.
Banks have been cautious with non-English publications, though. Translation errors are "a tremendous concern," said Mark Elterman, director of business development at McMurry. "We could probably list five or 10 major snafus where they botched translations."
To overcome what he calls banks' "paranoia" over the issue, McMurry uses proofreaders who speak several Latino dialects, Mr. Elterman said.
Citibank's Mr. Curcio said Avances provides entree to the community. The magazine is so well received that it gives confidence to salespeople following up on the mailing, he said-confidence they would not have just making cold calls.
"It starts a conversation that will hopefully blossom into a relationship," he said.
So far, Mr. Curcio said, he is pleased. Initially there were 600 known responses to the magazine, he said-about one per 100 copies mailed. At midyear the bank will assess the program by analyzing responses, the number of accounts opened, and the traffic generated.
At that time it may bring the magazine to California and New York markets, he said. Citibank may also circulate the magazine directly through relevant organizations, he said.
Mr. Curcio predicts numerous marketing opportunities through the magazine. For instance, Citibank plans to fund a larger magazine with advertising from such companies as American Airlines, he said. As a stimulus to action, it has offered incentives to people opening accounts.
Citibank is giving out autographed books, soundtracks, and other items from well-known Latino entertainers. Some of these items are not yet available generally, Mr. Curcio said.
The bank is also negotiating to offer McMurry's newest publication, Clout, to the African-American community. McMurry has signed up no banks for Clout but says the concept is a winner.
"Banks have recognized the fact that they've underestimated the African- American community and that they need to educate them more," said Randy Kazmierski, director of business development. The rising education and wealth of African-Americans have attracted banks, which recognize that they need "to go above and beyond what they've been doing," he said.
KeyCorp is not focusing on ethnic groups but tries to cover all the bases through a handful of publications, said Janet L. Gaydosh, customer communications manager. Needs overlap, she said, and overly specialized publications can dilute the message. By recognizing diversity and including it in its publications, KeyCorp can be successful in serving many needs, she said.
The bank identified 10 segments with specific needs that it serves through three magazines: Business Vision, catering to small business; Your Rewards for customers 50 and older; and Today's Focus, geared toward younger consumers.
KeyCorp got into custom-published magazines largely to cut down on brochure clutter. A year and a half into the program, Ms. Gaydosh said, there are just 10 brochures in a typical branch, compared with 150 two years ago. Those 10 are fairly technical and contain information that must be communicated, she said.
"So far, this is being received well," Ms. Gaydosh said.
Time Inc. selects articles from 17 publications including Money and Your Company, updates them, and edits them for length, she said. KeyCorp need not worry about major competitors being mentioned in most of the articles, because Time Inc. is sensitive to the issue and does not submit those for consideration, Ms. Gaydosh said.
Ms. Gaydosh said the goal was to provide objective information that bank customers can trust.
Within the magazines, KeyCorp provides bank product information in easy- to-read grids, including fee structures and annual percentage rates.
The publications are the primary sales tool for the featured products, she said.
KeyCorp is still developing a formal method to track the magazines' overall impact, but anecdotal evidence suggests the concept is working, she said. Ms. Gaydosh said the small-business publication, Business Vision, has been well received. Business owners find the information helpful and also find it easy to compare bank products listed in the grids, she said.
Each quarter KeyCorp circulates a total of 600,000 copies of the four magazines.
The company pays $1.30 per copy, which Ms. Gaydosh says is considerably less than they would cost to produce in-house.
KeyCorp also has a magazine custom-published by Gale Research, Detroit, for boards of directors.
Ms. Gaydosh expects to see custom publishing continue to be important to KeyCorp's efforts to reduce clutter and convey its message.
"It makes a lot of sense," she said. "We are providing more information."