Many banks want to expand their investment, trust, and credit businesses with the nation's wealthier consumers. One indication is a recent trend to merge private banking and trust units in order to better serve the upscale customer. Of course, the growth in wealth accumulation, generational transfer, and investment has been unprecedented so there is a real growth opportunity for the banks.

But is the banking sector really serious about capturing a larger share of the upscale market? If so, banks have a particular problem that must be addressed - well-to-do individuals don't think banks do a very good job as providers of investment services.

It's hardly news that trust departments and both private and commercial banks receive low marks from upscale consumers on investment services compared to other kinds of providers. The clear favorites are full-service brokers, followed by independent investment management firms. This actual or perceived weakness of banks has been identified over the past 10 years in a number of proprietary and syndicated market research studies.

However, private banking and trust departments are in the limelight because bank managements are placing greater emphasis on fee income and higher profit margins than ever before. So, in order to become competitive, bank marketers are going to have to deal with this consumer-perceived weakness. The solutions won't be easy or low-cost especially for departments that traditionally have had little marketing support.

Many banks have a positive story to tell about their private banking and trust services and investment skills, but they must begin to communicate that story effectively and over a sustained period of time if the deep- seated negative attitudes are to be changed.

The communications task is difficult. The affluent and wealth segments are neither homogeneous nor easy to reach. Ads placed in the news weeklies or financial and business press are unlikely to be effective because a great deal of information has to be conveyed in order to change the attitudes held by people already inundated with financial services communications.

The cost of reaching an upscale audience through traditional media is prohibitive. Innovative channels are required, and the solutions may well be regional or market-specific rather than national in scope. All of this takes money, time, and commitment.

There have been some innovative attempts in the past by banks to reach the scale. A case in point is Chase Manhattan Bank, which test-marketed an innovative affluent-targeted publication in the early 1990s. Chase's test vehicle successfully created positive attitudes and incremental business over time, but the project's budget became a casualty of an organizational shuffle and budget cutting.

Edward B. Hughes, who headed custom magazine activities for a major media company involved in the Chase test, says "much more economical means now exist to produce similar results, but even a smaller investment may seem to be a high hurdle for units that traditionally have had little or no marketing support funds."

It seems that banks wishing to increase their high-end clientele will have to find a way to get their stories out to this audience. This goes beyond corporate branding and image advertising. The communications job is to replace the customer's misconceptions with positive dispositions to use the sponsoring bank's services rather than competitive offerings.

It still will take people to make and close the sale, but the acquisition and retention of upscale clients will be significantly enhanced if the communication activities do their job. The full-service brokers now enjoy an advantage, but we know that perceptual advantages are seldom sustainable if competitors - in this case, the banks - have the deep pockets and an equally deep commitment to build their upscale business.

Tom Myers is a consultant at Business Dynamic Consulting, Nyack, N.Y.

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