Despite Wall Street's failure and bank bailouts, all is well in Alabama's Calhoun County. That's the message that four community banks are sending their customers. Cheaha Bank, Farmers and Merchants Bank, NobleBank and Trust, and Southern States Bank teamed to create an ad campaign emphasizing the banks' security, strength and ability to lend. All four of the banks, located off Interstate 20 in between Birmingham, AL and Atlanta, have less than $200 million in total assets.
Southern States' president and CEO Stephen Whatley initiated the call for a cooperative response among local community banks last autumn as the negative news continued to snowball. "We wanted to seize...a real opportunity to get the message out to perspective customers and clients that we are safe; we're lending money, which a lot of banks aren't; we are going to be open for business."
Anthony Humphries, the president and CEO of NobleBank, called it a no-brainer for the banks to come together. The problems surrounding some super regional and national banks created a situation where customers were not only receptive to moving money around, but also actively seeking out community banks.
"We have a very good working relationship [with the three other banks]; we actually participate loans with each other and we communicate on a regular basis," Humphries says. "After the IndyMac failure and the Wachovia problems that all happened, we actually were the beneficiaries. We had people moving large sums of money to us, even though we are small. We saw this as an opportunity."
The first of the three ads, which ran from October into November, had a simple message: Strong. Stable. Secure. Below the print ran, "These Words Speak Volumes About Calhoun County's Community Banks," with four-paragraphs on why the banks are strong, stable and secure. At the bottom of the ad are the four banks' brands.
The second ad shows a picture of a house with a sign in front that reads "Financing Available". Just underneath the image the ad states, "There Is No Credit Crunch In Calhoun County." Again, there is a mini-article and the banks' brands below. In the third ad, a man is looking at his laptop appearing nonplussed. The ad asks: "Tired Of News About Lack Of Loan Availability? We Have A Different Story To Tell." The ad follows a similar layout as the other two.
Humphries says the ads are positive and don't take shots at larger institutions at the heart of the meltdown. Community, mid-tier and large banks are all in this together, so now is not the time for scorn. "I've seen some others that have turned to negative ads and that turns me off," he says. "We don't want to be negative because we don't want to add to their woes, to their problems. At the same time, we wanted to get the message out that we're in business. We wanted to get the message out that your community banks are strong, safe and don't have the issues that the large, regional banks have. Again, trying not to be negative in our approach."
Ultimately, it took two weeks to get the ads out to the public. It also required "the reallocation of some [marketing] dollars," says Southern States' Whatley. The results have been positive. Franklin Latta, the president and CEO of Farmers and Merchants, which is the oldest (13 years) and largest ($176 million) of the four banks, says that it's hard to gauge new business but current customers have responded favorably. Cheaha Bank was unavailable for comment.
Whatley says he has seen added interest probably due to the ads and the weakness of other banks. "Our deposits are growing and a lot of them are coming from these super regionals and larger banks with a nationwide presence that are perceived to be in trouble," he says.
Humphries adds that, in these troubled times, there is strength in numbers. By projecting a strong, unified front - as opposed to individual campaigns - all the community banks gain more credibility.