September three mammoth institutions, Merrill Lynch, Washington Mutual and Wachovia, were purchased by Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo, respectively; the ramifications for the economy at large and the institutions are huge, and it will be up to the banks' marketing teams to make sense of these developments for consumers.

Give the perilous economic times, projecting safety and security is key, says Thomas Ordahl, who's a partner with New York City-based branding expert Group 1066. "A [major] bank going under hasn't really been a fear since the Great Depression and hasn't been a criteria for people when selecting a bank; fear is now rearing its head again," Ordahl says. "Banks are now snapping back to the old message of strength, stability, reliability and safety...[rather than] competing on products and services."

Actually, given the magnitude of these three acquisitions, more aggressive marketing might have been expected already, says Jon Swallen, svp of research for NYC-based TNS Media Intelligence. The reason it hasn't occurred, he says, is that these institutions all had major ad campaigns in swing and to change course abruptly in the fourth quarter is not easy.

So far, the most ambitious campaign has been the one involving WaMu and Chase, which makes sense given that WaMu was the only institution of the three seized by the government before flipping it to JPMorgan Chase. There was, in other words, a greater need for JPMorgan Chase to allay fears with a positive message right out of the gate. "Timing was crucial because we had to get out the word that WaMu deposits were now backed by the strength of JPMorgan Chase," says JPMorgan Chase spokesperson Thomas Kelly, who notes that WaMu depositors had withdrawn more than $16.7 billion, or 10 percent of deposits, in the 10 days leading up to the acquisition.

After the acquisition, ads immediately began to hit print and the airwaves touting that the nation's largest thrift was now a part of "America's largest bank." The half-page ads, which ran nationally, had the slogan "WaMu & Chase. Safe & Secure," and boasted, "Same free checking. Bigger security blanket," or "We love Chase. And not just because they have a trillion dollars." The bank also linked up the two Web sites within hours of the acquisition. "Ultimately, the message got out and within three business days we had positive deposit inflows into the WaMu branches," Kelly says.

The challenge now is what to do with the WaMu brand, Kelly says, though he expects that over time the WaMu brand will be phased out in geographic stages as WaMu migrates to Chase's computer system. "In the meantime, we need to support the WaMu brand and are reviewing how to do it - both in markets where there is also a Chase brand and in markets where there are no Chase branches."

Elsewhere, the marketing around the Wachovia acquisition started on a decidedly peculiar note when Citi ran full-page ads nationally to reassure Wachovia customers all would be well after the acquisition, only to be spurned at the eleventh hour when Wells Fargo made the Charlotte-based behemoth a better offer.

Since then Wachovia Securities ads have appeared in national and some regional newspapers with a twofold mission, says Wachovia spokesperson Matthew Wadley: assure customers that the integration of Wachovia Securities and A.G. Edwards, ongoing since 2007, is continuing smoothly; and that Wells Fargo, "one of Barron's Most Respected Companies in the world and an American institution since 1852," was backing the faltering bank. "Mainly, the goal is to reassure customers and to remind them that their financial advisors are always there for them if they have questions or concerns about their finances," Wadley says.

At Bank of America, meanwhile, there's been virtually no marketing promoting the new institution; that's in part due to the circumstances around the deal, which were not as dramatic as the government takeover of WaMu and the tug-of-war for Wachovia. So far, Bank of America has not veered off course from its "Bank of Opportunities" campaign and Merrill is still standing on its own. However, analysts agree that a mega-campaign is likely for 2009 to boast about the services that these combined institutions can provide.

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