How This Bank Wins Millennials' Hearts and (Maybe) Accounts

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AUSTIN, Texas — Many millennials who came of age during the financial crisis remain wary of banks. But a Colorado bank has found a way to bond with young people over things for which they have unreserved enthusiasm: free snowboards and smartphone-assisted treasure hunts.

For two years running, the Lakewood, Colo.-based FirstBank Holding Company has offered locals the chance to win snow-sport equipment with a promotion that merges the physical and digital worlds. The bank's Capture the Cube competition this season is sending contestants scavenging for 80 of its trademark orange cubes hidden around the Colorado ski resort Copper Mountain. Eagle-eyed winners can exchange the cubes for a snowboard or set of skis, and participants can download a mobile app that offers them clues to the cubes' whereabouts.

"People ask me, how many new accounts did [Capture the Cube] generate?" FirstBank president and chief executive John Ikard said at American Banker's Retail Banking 2015 conference in Austin on Wednesday. "I don't know. But it gives you great brand awareness. People think, 'Hey, FirstBank is pretty cool.'"

The company's social-media promotions for the competition, including a video that shows rosy-cheeked contestants gliding down the Copper Mountain's slopes and calling FirstBank "gnarly" (in the positive sense), have also resonated with community members, according to Ikard. He suggested that this kind of soft marketing can be embraced by a wide range of banks, pointing to a recent JPMorgan Chase television advertisement showcasing ATMs that accept cash deposits without envelopes or deposit slips.

"Now, when was the last time I needed to put cash in an ATM?" he said. "Never. But it's cool that they offer that. Sometimes brand awareness-type commercials can give you a good feel, especially with millennials."

The $14 billion-asset FirstBank, which has 122 branches in Colorado, Arizona and California, has also found that its philanthropic efforts are a hit with the socially conscious younger generation.

"We're the largest philanthropic giver in the state of Colorado," Ikard said. "That's an image thing; we're giving back to our community. Millennials like that. And since we have a good income, we can do that."

FirstBank is also trying to win young people over with advertising that emphasizes how its technology can solve their problems. One of the bank's commercials seeks to demonstrate the usefulness of its mobile alerts. In the commercial, an everyman type sits across from a polished young woman who vows to kidnap his pets after they break up and call him 600 times later that night. The punch line: "Know about trouble before it happens."

"The idea is that we can send red-flag alerts to customers, saying 'hey, your account balance has fallen below a certain amount or your check is going to bounce,'" Ikard said. "If we can send those alerts out to customers and let them know about it in a humorous way, that might be something they can adapt and actually start to use."

"We try to wrap all those things together," Ikard said later, "and get millennials' business with cool technology, giving away snowboards, and making sure people perceive you as a bank that really cares about the community."

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