More bankers are talking about projecting the power of their brand names across the country, but one wouldn't know it by watching television.

BankAmerica Corp. and Chase Manhattan Corp. are the only two of the industry's top 20 advertising spenders buying spots on network television, the quintessential mass medium for building brands.

BankAmerica, now the fifth-largest bank and due to merge with third- ranked NationsBank Corp., spent $1.8 million on network advertising this year through the end of May, according to data compiled by Competitive Media Reporting of New York.

The San Francisco bank spent $5.5 million on television, including local network affiliates and cable, Competitive Media found. That made up 38% of its spending through May.

Chase, the largest bank at the moment, spent $744,000 on network time and $6.7 million on all television, which was 44% of total ad spending through the first five months of 1998.

Other major banks that have been working to build their brand identities have shunned the national airwaves in favor of print media, the data reveal.

NationsBank Corp. spent $19.1 million-70% of its total spending-on local and national newspapers and magazines.

Citicorp, long considered the branding leader among banks, spent $11.9 million, or 89% of its ad allocation through May, on newspapers and magazines.

Consultants said the data reflect continued short-term thinking on the part of many bankers about how to impress an increasingly national consumer banking market with strong brands and corporate images.

"They are still letting the businesses drive their brand campaigns," said Allen Adamson, managing director of Landor Associates. "The decisions are being made from the bottom up rather than the top down."

The much-talked-about branding campaigns announced in recent years have suffered somewhat from the mind-set of the traditional banker, said Mr. Adamson, who is based in New York.

"For most of these banks, the whole mentality has always been branch- based," he said. "The growth of the brand has been based on how the products are delivered."

Consultants said brand campaigns are held back by the way banks typically allocate their ad dollars. Most of the time, individual business managers set their own budgets and create their own marketing messages.

That practice can short-circuit efforts to project a unified brand, consultants said.

"Banks have to find the common threads that tie all those different marketing efforts together," said James Cerutti, director of the financial institutions practice at Diefenbach Elkins, a New York-based corporate image consulting firm.

Cost has also been a factor, consultants and bankers said.

"It didn't make sense for us to buy network time and pay for 70% of the country where we have no retail presence," said Dick Stilley, manager of corporate public relations for Charlotte, N.C.-based NationsBank.

That sentiment is shared by others, the data suggest. Out of the $377 million spent by banks on ads through May this year, $270.9 million went to print media and $76.6 million to television. The rest includes outdoor advertising and local and network radio.

Of the TV total, $68.2 million went to local affiliates, the rest to networks and cable.

"There aren't that many banks that can claim the national franchise to justify network spending," Mr. Cerutti said.

Cable television, however, could attract interest from some banks that want to reach beyond local media but in a targeted way. First Union Corp. of Charlotte, N.C., spent $72,000 in the five months on cable shows. BankAmerica spent $1.9 million.

Mr. Cerutti said cable, like print, can pinpoint desired markets or segments. "You can make more efficient use of your ad dollars by reaching a select geography or viewer market," he explained.

Mr. Stilley said NationsBank has favored buying packages from regional television affiliates "where it makes sense." That may change with the bank's planned merger with BankAmerica this year, creating a branch network with something approaching national coverage.

"We will be much more extensive and may have to look at our ad spending then," Mr. Stilley said.

If the financial markets and bank performance continue to slide, however, observers said brand campaigns could be candidates for the chopping block.

"You retrench," Mr. Adamson said. "You worry about keeping the account you have. You don't worry about some highfalutin brand."

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