Washington Trust Co. of Westerly, R.I., has printed a calendar for its customers every year for more than two decades. But this past holiday season, it decided to forgo that tradition and and use the money to print up 15,000 coupon books, with deals ranging from 15 percent off labor at M&R Electric to buy-one-get-one-free at Burger Barn.

The coupon book is more than just a thank-you to the bank's retail customers. It's also an effort by Washington Trust to drive traffic its business customers, 200 of which offer discounts in the coupon book.

"It's just something a little extra that we can do to say, 'We're not only going to give you great service and good banking products, we're going to help you promote your business to our customer base,'" says Elizabeth Eckel, the bank's senior vice president of marketing.

The $2.9 billion-asset Washington Trust is one of several banks helping local businesses market their products and services, believing that if they succeed, the bank will, too. Tactics range from helping business owners create Web sites to selling their products in their branches.

Business owners appreciate the effort. Justin Gallant, co-owner of Pier Pizza in Wakefield, R.I., hopes the buy-one-get-one coupon he's offering through Washington Trust will give his business "a little extra boost" during March Madness. "It's real neat that they're doing something like that," he adds. "It's one of the reasons that we're with them."

The initiative is paying off for Washington Trust in other ways too: It was featured on the local news, and the Rhode Island Secretary of State's office has discussed highlighting the promotion on its Web site.

Washington Trust has a history of helping out its business customers. For the past few years, it has allowed them to use its branch space, digital screens and display windows to promote their wares. Now some branches are booked more than a year in advance, on a first-come, first-served basis.

Umpqua Bank in Roseburg, Ore., has a similar program called Local Spotlight, and has even sold products of its small-business customers in its branches.

Sometimes a branch will showcase a local business that doesn't have an account with Umpqua in hopes of winning it over as a customer. Recently it sold a $5,000 bike for a local shop whose owners have personal, but not business, accounts with the bank.

The $9.2 billion-asset Umpqua also created a social networking site where business owners can create a profile to connect with entrepreneurs and customers, or just advertise. The site is being revamped and will be relaunched in phases this year.

FirstBank of Lakewood, Colo., goes further by offering free Web-hosting services to customers for a year through the Web site Squarespace.com. Businesses that open a new checking account with a minimum of $100 get help setting up and running a site.

The Web hosting is part of what the $9.8 billion-asset bank calls its DotFree services, which also lets customers piggyback on its outdoor, print and online advertising space. One billboard it ran said, "Piano Lessons. Mrs. Bennett. Beginners welcome," with a telephone number to call for more information. Below it had the FirstBank logo with the tagline, "We care about small business."

Travis Macy, a high-school teacher who tutors privately on the side, was featured on two such billboards in Denver. Macy said he got about 10 calls from new prospects seeking a math tutor in the first few days after the billboards went up.

Through November, FirstBank opened 200 more business checking accounts for the year than it did the year earlier, says Brian Jensen, vice president of marketing.

Steven Busby, senior managing director at Greenwich Associates in Stamford, Conn., says programs like these get to the crux of relationship banking.

"It would be an interesting next generation of banker that wouldn't just go through the credit course, they'd go through the understanding-business course and really truly learn how to help clients," Busby says.

Charles Wendel, president of Financial Institutions Consulting Inc. in Ridgefield, Conn., says customers will appreciate the bank's effort even if it doesn't bring in much new business. Still, marketing help is no substitute for extending credit, he says. "It's good PR and it makes the bank feel good, but you're not going to resonate with the customer unless you're also out there lending them money."

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.