When brainstorming over the winter about potential mascots to promote First Arkansas Bank & Trust's children's savings program, the bank's marketing team considered the usual suspects: superheroes, Barney, cartoon characters and the like. The problem, the team realized, is that kids quickly outgrow make-believe characters, and if the bank wanted to keep the youngsters as customers through their teen years and beyond, it would need a mascot with more staying power.

Then someone suggested a dog — a real one. In short order, the marketing staff visited an animal rescue shelter in the bank's hometown of Jacksonville, where the workers found, and quickly adopted, a female golden retriever named Sheila. "It just clicked," says Roger Sundermeier, the bank's marketing chief. "[Sheila] was the one that we wanted to have."

The bank changed the dog's name to Cash, with the idea of rebranding its First Bucks Savings Account to the Cash Club. Little did the executives know that their efforts to jolt life into its kids' product line would lead to a bank-wide branding campaign with Cash, who spends her free time living at home with one of the bank's executives, as the central character.

The $548 million-asset bank did not roll out the campaign right away. It started building interest in January when it put out marketing materials saying simply that "Cash is coming soon..." The next month it announced Cash's arrival, and on March 16 it went live with the new Cash Club account.

FAB&T officials took Cash to schools and community events to encourage savings, and to promote the new Cash Club account.

Cash Club works like this: With a minimum of a $10 deposit, the child gets a four-inch tall, stuffed Cash doll and a card that is stamped after each deposit. After three deposits, the child next gets a carrier for the stuffed animal. After 10 deposits, they can choose from one of five other stuffed animals that are part of Cash's Crew. The idea, says Sundermeier, is to get the kids to pester their parents to go to the bank to make a deposit so they can build up to the next prize.

In slightly more than a month the nearly-four-year-old kids' product grew from 900 accounts to more than 1,200, Sundermeier says. More importantly, overall bank revenue has been growing since Cash was introduced, which Sundermeier says is a direct result of increased foot traffic at its branches. "It's a great program for the kids but the natural hope is that while the parents or grandparents are there, that gives us an opportunity to talk about high-interest checking accounts, high-interest savings accounts, our CD rates, trust and estate planning, or how to get a mortgage," Sundermeier says.

Further capitalizing on Cash's growing popularity, the bank in March hosted the first of what will be a series of community events, called Dog Daze.

A local pet-grooming service was on hand to offer washing and grooming services. Attendees who did not own a pet could visit a mobile pet adoption unit. The event also attracted interest from national companies. Petco, the pet supply chain, set up a tent; Radio Disney covered the festivities; and Build-A-Bear offered stuffed animals, with the proceeds going to local animal shelters.

Mark Wilkinson, founder of NewMarque Group in Santa Barbara, Calif., says that, in the current climate, it makes sense to build a campaign around a trusted pet. "The banking industry has lost a lot of trust," he says. "So I can see why they might've chosen to go in that direction."

Sundermeier adds that the campaign sends the right message to the bank's staff as well. "The traits that a dog personifies with the trust and loyalty and the compassion, deep down that's the stuff that we want our employees to embody."

Sundermeier declined to disclose a price tag for the Cash-themed campaign, but says it's within its annual marketing budget. The difference, is that this campaign is resonating like no other in the bank's history, he says.

"That $55 that we spent with the animal shelter to get Cash has been the best money we've ever spent."

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