When George Tamakloe went to an ATM at a Fleet Financial Group branch in downtown New York on Thursday, mutual funds were the last thing on his mind.

The 30-year-old senior accountant at the New York Mercantile Exchange, who invests his money with Fidelity Investments, is typical of many bank customers.

"I didn't know banks sell mutual funds," he said.

Indeed, a recent survey of bank customers by Stern Marketing Group, Berkeley Calif., showed that only 17% of 109 could name mutual funds, stocks, bonds, or securities as products offered by their primary bank.

Stern, a retail marketing firm, caught customers as they were leaving their bank branches in California and New York and asked them if they thought of their bank as a place to get financial advice and purchase mutual funds.

Moreover, when American Banker interviewed six customers recently at their branches, five said they did not know their banks sold mutual funds and gave investment advice. The one who did know said she learned about the products from a friend who works at Republic National Corp.-not from any bank promotional activities.

Why can't banks incorporate financial advice into their brand images? Some advertising executives said that banks' history as stodgy places to keep money safe in a deposit, savings, or checking account is nearly impossible to shake.

"Maybe they're trapped," said Kevin O'Neill, president and chief creative officer at New York advertising company Warwick Baker & O'Neill. "It could be that shedding your skin is difficult."

But Mr. O'Neill, whose firm was behind the recent brand-image campaign of the fund company Massachusetts Financial Services, said banks' conservative image has a lot to offer. And banks have strong ties to their communities.

Still, banks "need to do what anybody who sells mutual funds does," said Ron Berger, a partner and chief creative director at MVBMS Inc., an advertising agency in New York. They need to distinguish themselves from everyone else in what is fast becoming a cutthroat market.

Mr. Berger suggests that banks "offer up tangible evidence" that they have an expertise in managing assets.

Some banks say they are already doing that. Cleveland's KeyCorp, for one, is marketing its two fund families-the KeyFunds and Victory Funds-in newspapers in six cities.

"We haven't had a strong history of telling the world we can manage money," said W. Christopher Maxwell, executive vice president. "Banks have only been in the mutual fund business as a manager or purveyor for five or six years."

He added that in the second quarter KeyCorp plans to move forward with an advertising campaign about its new partnership with Charles Schwab & Co. to set up financial supermarkets in its branches.

"When we go out with the Schwab program, we'll tell people loudly that they can get investments at Key," he declared.

Once banks finally get the word out, will customers such as Mr. Tamakloe rush to them for mutual funds? "If they don't charge me a fee," Mr. Tamakloe said, shrugging his shoulders.

Too bad for Fleet. The Boston-based bank in 1995 added sales loads to its formerly no-load Galaxy Funds.

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