Jack Neary has fond memories of the knockout punch Mike Tyson delivered to Buster Mathis Jr. a year ago in the CoreStates Spectrum in Philadelphia.

"His head landed next to the CoreStates Spectrum sign," recalled the bank's executive vice president of marketing. "That's on national TV."

Welcome to the brave new world of bank marketing.

In an era of intense competition among ever-larger players, banks nationwide have been trying to forge stronger brand names, often borrowing from the playbooks of consumer products companies.

Mr. Neary said he wants to create a sense of "everywhereness" for CoreStates. And a key part of this marketing strategy involved renaming two adjacent arenas in Philadelphia, its headquarters city - the new CoreStates Center, home to the '76ers National Basketball Association team and to the Flyers National Hockey League team, and the CoreStates Spectrum, where a minor league hockey club and an indoor soccer team play.

"For the money, it's probably the best dollar spent in terms of name awareness and recognition that you can find," said Mr. Neary.

CoreStates is among a growing number of big banks, airlines, and other companies that have shelled out tens of millions of dollars to put their names on arenas and stadiums. In the past two years, 16 corporations have done so, including six banking companies - CoreStates, Fleet Financial Group Inc., KeyCorp, Banc One Corp., Great Western Financial Corp., and Marine Midland Banks Inc.

In addition, PNC Bank Corp.'s name now adorns an open-air theater in New Jersey, the former Garden State Arts Center.

Bankers and marketing experts concede that the financial benefits of big-venue naming rights are difficult to measure. But they enthusiastically endorse the strategy as a way to build brand identity, jazz up a stodgy image, and court corporate and private banking customers with free seats to the hottest game in town.

Art Clark, a partner at Business Dynamics Consulting Inc., Nyack, N.Y., said buying naming rights to an arena lends an aura of "permanence, stability, and credibility" to a bank's image.

"It's damned smart," said Gary Stibel, founder and principal of New England Consulting Group, Westport, Conn. "They need to get their identities on anything that has the potential to enhance their image and prestige among their target audience - current and prospective consumers."

CoreStates said the $40 million it will spend to have its name on the two arenas for 29 years will buy more exposure than equivalent spending on traditional marketing and advertising.

The CoreStates name can be seen from the interstate highway that connects the airport with downtown Philadelphia. All event tickets bear the bank's name. And fans watching games at home or at the events themselves can't help seeing the bank's logo on the scoreboard, basketball court, and the hockey rink ice. The CoreStates name also invariably pops up in sports stories and radio and television advertisements promoting games, concerts, and other events.

Sometimes the exposure is even more extensive. One arena, for example, hosted a nationally televised basketball game between Villanova University and the University of North Carolina. "You had them running by the CoreStates Spectrum sign - what? - 140 times, on national TV," said Mr. Neary.

But there are benefits beyond the subliminal, suggested Mr. Neary. CoreStates entertains customers in its luxury suites in both buildings. Its contract also gives it the right to buy extra blocks of seats for popular events. CoreStates treated 800 customers to a Neil Diamond concert, for example, Mr. Neary recalled.

"Doesn't that mean something? Shouldn't that pay off down the road?" he asked. "We think it will. We think it does."

Mr. Neary said it was also important to have a good working relationship with an arena's owners. The CoreStates Spectrum and Center are owned by Comcast Spectacor, which also owns the Flyers and '76ers.

"I certainly believe that CoreStates has gotten more value than they bargained for," said Peter Luukko, president of the CoreStates Complex who oversees event bookings, marketing, and operations for Comcast Spectacor. "I've got to believe it's even more exposure than even they expected."

Yet the bottom-line benefits of arena naming rights are hard to pin down. Fleet said it counts the number of "hits," or mentions, the company gets in sports pages and print and broadcast advertising.

Mr. Stibel of New England Consulting said his firm uses an "analog model" to weigh the expense against the number of times the marketing effort reaches targeted customers.

"You can actually benchmark how effectively the medium helps acquire new customers and retain old customers," he said.

Deborah Smith, senior vice president of marketing for KeyCorp's northwest region, pointed to a quantifiable improvement in the bank's image since it put its name on the rebuilt Seattle Coliseum.

Cleveland-based KeyCorp, which entered Washington State by acquisition in 1989, was competing on the turf of established banks like Seafirst, a unit of BankAmerica Corp.

"For us, the acquisition of this sponsorship was very important from a strategic standpoint," said Ms. Smith. "We had to do something to let this marketplace know that we are player."

Ms. Smith pointed to market research showing that at the end of 1994, before the Key name adorned the home of the NBA's Seattle SuperSonics, only 12% of consumers in the state identified the bank without prompting. Ten months after the arena was renamed, consumer awareness had jumped to 17%.

What's more, Ms. Smith added, KeyCorp's advertising budget in the Pacific Northwest declined 30% during the period.

"Normally, the way you move that needle is through media expenditure," said Ms. Smith. "We put the money into Key Arena, and it moved the needle more effectively than advertising."

KeyCorp was also relieved that one early fear proved groundless. The bank was putting its name on the Coliseum, a 1960s-era facility originally built for the World's Fair - an event that had helped put Seattle on the map. While a $79 million rebuilding project created what amounts to a new building, the company worried that residents would cling to the Coliseum name. KeyCorp also considered the possibility of a community backlash over the renaming.

"How is this town going to react to the privatization of what has been the heart of this city, the home of the 'Sonics, a building from the World's Fair?" Ms. Smith recalled wondering.

But civic leaders put KeyCorp at ease. "The city said, 'We think the community is going to embrace this new facility,' " said Ms. Smith. The city also launched a public relations campaign to persuade residents that a corporate sponsor was necessary to avoid a new tax to finance the improvements.

Fleet Financial faced a similar issue in Boston. While it was privately financed, FleetCenter was replacing the storied Boston Garden as home of the Celtics and Bruins.

Bob Hand, a Fleet senior vice president, said that while there was nostalgia for the old facility in sports-crazed Boston it was quickly overshadowed by the amenities of the new venue.

While bankers also shrug off what might be perceived as another threat - that an unpopular event at an arena could tarnish the bank's name - they concede that consumers sometime confuse arena sponsorship with control over what goes on inside.

Fleet's Mr. Hand said continuous education is required. Mr. Neary of CoreStates said his company tries to make it clear when necessary that "they don't tell us how to run our bank (and) we don't tell them how to run the building."

"There is enough distance," agreed Mr. Luukko, president of the CoreStates Complex.

Marketing experts, moreover, said controversial events don't threaten the good name of arena sponsors. "That's when it fades into the background," said Brian J. Murphy, editor and publisher of Sports Marketing Letter, Westport, Conn. "I think it's a very no-risk operation."

In any case, banks also use their sponsorship of arenas to build community ties. They can point, for example, to thousands of seats given away to needy residents through nonprofit groups.

While that helps bolster an image as a good corporate citizen, the banks are also using the facilities for selling.

The CoreStates Center includes a "video wall" that can run tapes promoting the bank.

The company is also working with team owners to offer Flyers and '76ers affinity credit cards.

"There are a lot of connections," said Mr. Neary. "We've hardly scratched the surface in terms of the potential."

KeyCorp has similar marketing schemes in the works. It has sold 5,000 accounts that sport images of 'Sonics players on the check blanks. It has also opened 13,000 'Sonics-labeled Visa card accounts. However, Ms. Smith said, "only 35% have charged something on it. I need to move that number up."

Mr. Clark of Business Dynamics, the consulting firm, said arena sponsorships and related promotions can help banks appear less "large, personal, and sterile" in the minds of consumers.

"One of the things it helps you do is soften your image," he said. " 'Your beloved sports team plays in an arena named after us.' That may work on an subconscious level. It can't hurt."

Bankers agree. But Mr. Neary of CoreStates noted that this marketing method would only work if a bank is otherwise doing an effective job.

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