Florida community banks are on the offensive, breaking advertising budgets on campaigns aimed at winning customers from Barnett Banks Inc. before NationsBank Corp. takes it over.

"Community banks have a window of opportunity," said Edward V. Lett, president and chief executive officer of TIB Bank of the Keys, Key Largo. "I could either bid on (divested) branches, and pay a stiff premium, or I can try to take the deposits."

The $260 million-asset bank has quadrupled its marketing budget since the merger was announced Aug. 29, to $16,000 a month from $4,000.

NationsBank has announced it will shed up to $3 billion of deposits to get government approval of the Barnett deal. Without such divestitures, it would control almost 30% of deposits statewide, 45% in Key Largo. (Florida limits statewide deposit market share to 30% but puts no limit on local- market concentrations. Federal agencies also must give the deal anti-trust clearance.)

But rather than waiting for a fire sale, community banks are busting their marketing budgets on radio, television, and print ads that bash big, out-of-state banks, particularly NationsBank.

TIB's print campaign has focused on educating potential customers about the merger, including the possibility that NationsBank will have to divest some of its branches in the Keys. "Even if you like NationsBank, are you going to like who they sell to?" one ad asks.

"We are telling customers they should take control of their future," Mr. Lett said. "Why go to the highest bidder? Get out now."

A.D. Harrison Jr., chairman and chief executive officer of $249 million- asset Coconut Grove Bank in Miami, also jumped in with an ad push right after the deal was announced. Coconut Grove's ads ask: "Was your account just sold? Is your deposit going out of state?"

A TV ad by South Florida Bank, Fort Myers, shows a customer trying to reach a representative of "Mega-Merger Bank" by telephone. The customer instead gets a list of the fictional bank's branches in Nebraska.

Buying time on television means $84 million-asset South Florida will spend about 55% more than its 1997 monthly average on advertising this quarter, or roughly $15,000, said William P. Valenti, president and chief executive officer. "We are setting the scene," he said. And if Barnett customers find they are unsatisfied with their new bank, he hopes they will remember South Florida from the ads.

A spokesman for NationsBank said some of its other mergers had sparked similar advertising. "We communicate to our associates to continue to do what they always have done-serve the customer," said NationsBank spokesman Fred Hannon.

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