Barely a year since its East Coast expansion triggered an aggressive branding effort, First Union Corp. will take its campaign national.

"We are one of the major financial services companies in this country and there are markets where they don't even know our name," says Jim Garrity, director of advertising at Charlotte-based First Union. "We've got a lot of catch up to do in several markets."

In February 1997, First Union launched a high-profile, $85 million-a- year branding effort that focused heavily along the East Coast. That announcement came barely a month after closing the huge acquisition of New Jersey-based First Fidelity Bancorp. At the same time, the bank began promoting lines of business such as First Union Capital Markets in a targeted, national campaign.

The company is pleased with the results. First Union says that a key indicator-unaided awareness-has doubled since the campaign began. He declines to provide specifics from recent tracking studies.

Now, Garrity says the company is ready to roll out a nationwide branding effort in the second half of 1998. One Madison Avenue executive projected that a print and broadcast effort could cost well over $150 million a year. "It depends on how aggressive they want to be," says the source.

When it comes to advertising budgets, Garrity isn't saying how much he will spend, though he concedes he favors television and strategic exposure rather than the saturation strategy preferred by some.

The decision to go national apparently is not related to the company's recent acquisition of The Money Store, known for ads featuring pitchman Jim Palmer. Garrity says the specialty lender has an excellent brand that will continue to be managed out of Sacramento. To critics who say that First Union may be tempted to combine marketing efforts, Garrity points to the company's success in operating its Evergreen Funds brand separately. Evergreen is building its brand around the fact that its money managers have experienced at least one market downturn-a critical consideration in an industry known for its cherubic superstars.

"Making First Union highly visible in a campaign for Evergreen would actually be a real negative," says Garrity, who directed branding and advertising efforts at computer maker Compaq before joining First Union last year.

San Francisco-based Hal Riney & Partners will take First Union's branding efforts national. The agency is known for its distinctive work for accounts such as Bartyles & James and Saturn Corp.

The mission is to promote First Union's marriage of bankers and brokers. "We want customers to see us as the financial services company that provides them with smart, straightforward solutions which are in their best interest," he says.

By most measures, First Union's efforts are bold. While many banks fancy themselves one-stop supermarkets, branding experts say that few move beyond the platitudes of FDIC-inspired trust and talk of relationships. "There's a lot of lip service paid to branding, but few do it well in financial services," says Alan Bergstrom, president of The Brand Consultancy in Atlanta, whose clients include NationsBank Corp. and Prudential. "When you're talking about money, people want to feel that you're close to their needs."

The danger for players such as First Union may well be trying to connect a brand message with too many customer segments. "The top problems we see among banks is that they either don't know what their brand stands for, or they don't know which customers they want," Bergstrom says.

Part of the strategy at First Union is to provide an unusual mix of pure branding spots with commercials which are product specific. The past year's campaign, for instance, has strongly played up the company's innovative CAP account. Many ad experts reject product specific campaigns, but Garrity is unapologetic.

"People try to differentiate between product and brand ads," he says. "They should always work in concert because the products can speak to what people need as long as the brand is reinforced."

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