Harris Bankcorp's desires to expand in electronic banking ran into a marketing quandary: the cute and cuddly lion versus the sleek and abstract brand identity.
The lion, Hubert, has been closely associated with Harris Trust and Savings Bank's image since a 1957 Leo Burnett Co. ad campaign. Ten-inch- high Hubert dolls that were gifts to new customers occupy nurseries and grade school classrooms all around Chicago.
In the belief that plush animals may not cut it in the virtual world, however, the bank recently adopted the imagery of Mbanx-the name of the home banking program developed by the Chicago bank's Canadian owner, Bank of Montreal.
The change is indicative of the new and innovative promotional buttons that banks are pushing as they cross unfamiliar on-line frontiers. Harris Bank has the advantage of a leading-edge parent from which to crib.
"We intend to build a dominant North American brand," said Charles Piermarini, the Bank of Montreal senior vice president responsible for Mbanx in the United States.
He said the older brand image did not communicate that Harris offers a full range of banking services through its Web site and other automated channels.
Mbanx has made a name for itself up north. According to a survey by Strategic Council Inc. of Toronto, it is the most recognized brand in Canadian banking.
Since it was launched in October 1996, Mbanx has enrolled more than 100,000 users-about 40% of Bank of Montreal's retail customers.
Mbanx is designed to connote "more than a bank," said Mr. Piermarini.
Bank of Montreal established the brand with a multimillion-dollar marketing campaign directed at Canada's baby boomers. Canadian customers can link to up to 11 accounts through personal computer, telephone, or fax machine.
Brokerage and investment services are available on the Internet through Bank of Montreal Investor Services Ltd., which is expected to be on the Mbanx system this year.
Officials of the Toronto-based bank said they also are at work on systems for electronic bill payment and on-line shopping using digital certificates to ensure security.
Harris will watch the progress of these innovations carefully.
"There has been a tremendous amount of learning that we have been able to garner from our comrades in Canada," Mr. Piermarini said.
Bank of Montreal aims eventually to bring Mbanx to Mexico. It owns 16% of Bancomer, that country's largest banking company.
In all markets, Mr. Piermarini said, it is important to maintain a coherent "channel strategy" and to develop a system of training employees to staff the virtual bank.
"There are all these different channels that people come to use anytime and anywhere," Mr. Piermarini said. "We make sure we have competency available to handle it 24 hours a day."
Of particular importance to Harris is coordination of systems supporting Internet banking, automated teller machines, and phone banking.
"There is nothing worse for the credibility of a bank than for a consumer to go on an ATM and see that their balance is $100 and then go on the Internet and see something different," said Andrew Probst, Harris Bank's vice president and Mbanx channel manager.
Customers "need to feel secure that the bank is giving consistent information regardless of the channel," he said.
Using software from Edify Corp., Harris links all the channels to a common data base.
"What is driving an integrated strategy is not just customer convenience but saving significant costs when making changes across channels," said William A. Soward, the Edify financial industry executive who worked with Harris Bank to make the Mbanx system available for U.S. customers in 1997.
Harris brought its transactional Web site live on June 2, about six months after deciding to use Edify software. By October, about 4,000 customers were using the site.
Last month the bank struck a deal with Checkfree Corp. that adds electronic bill payment to the menu of on-line services.
Despite legal and cultural differences between the United States and Canada, Bank of Montreal sees operational benefits in its connections with Harris.
Internet servers for the two institutions are in Chicago, and their call centers are linked through an automated call distribution network, making it technically possible for Canadian customer service representatives to answer questions from U.S. customers. Banking regulations currently prohibit such interaction, but if they ever allow it, the banks are ready to take advantage.
The two banks also have cooperated with Bancomer. They have linked via computer networks 1,150 branches in Canada, 140 in the United States, and 1,100 in Mexico to facilitate cross-border cash management.
This Nafta-North American Free Trade Agreement-strategy has been a key reason Bank of Montreal gets more than half its revenues outside Canada.
Mr. Piermarini said the cooperative ventures hinge on a five-part corporate mission: "Change is good; we believe in better; a promise is a promise; simple rules that work; and everyone is important."
Andrea Goldstein, vice president of operations at Harris, said, "Mbanx is not going to be the bank for everyone."
To ensure that the bank satisfies those to whom electronic services appeal, the bank places a heavy emphasis on the training of customer service employees.
Ms. Goldstein cited an example of how such training can pay off.
A customer whose disk drive was corrupted by an Internet browser bug called Mbanx to ask for assistance, she said. "Our staff said, 'Let me check to see where there is a service organization near you,'" Ms. Goldstein said. The service representative then told the customer to send the bill to the bank.
"That is an example that I don't think you will find with other banks," she said.