Northwest New Jersey is hardly the rough, rugged terrain of Marlboro country.

But that has not stopped Michael Dickerson, a bank executive there, from mounting a horse, donning a Stetson, and employing imagery of the old West to sell his company's services.

For the past eight years, Mr. Dickerson, chief executive of National Bank of Sussex County, Branchville, N.J., has often appeared on horseback in print advertisements and even at local fairs and parades.

Though Mr. Dickerson loves horses - he keeps several on his farm - the Pittsburgh native says he chose the cowboy image simply to set him and his bank apart from the other banks that serve rural Sussex County.

"It's a way to differentiate us and our brand from everybody else," Mr. Dickerson says. "The three community banks we compete against all have a similar image."

Mr. Dickerson's effort is an example of the special techniques community banks are using to distinguish themselves.

Historically, these banks served their home turf with little to no competition and felt little need to spend money on staking out a special image.

But small banks today find themselves often competing with large banks and nonbank financial companies that can enter their markets by acquiring branches and by mass mailings.

More and more, community banks are using print, radio, and sometimes television advertising to play up their local ties and personalized service. But meager marketing budgets often force small institutions to market their brands on the cheap - using everything from signs at Little League games to creative statement stuffers.

"Maximizing brand equity should be the focus of senior management in banks of all sizes," says Michael Riley, managing director of the Bank Marketing Association, Wash-ington.

Take Mr. Dickerson's National Bank of Sussex County, which has $253 million of assets and eight branches. In addition to his cowboy ads in local newspapers, Mr. Dickerson markets NBSC - as the bank is locally known - through a variety of approaches including statement stuffers and the sponsorship of local events such as the country fair. The bank's slogan is, "Good Neighbor to Bank On."

Mr. Dickerson is spending about $250,000 a year on local advertising. Moreover, he is leveraging the NBSC brand by attaching it to a variety of nondeposit products, including life insurance, full-service brokerage, mutual funds, and annuities.

Some banks pride themselves are building a brand without using many dollars.

Inland Empire National Bank, Riverside, Calif., which has $72 million of assets, has an advertising budget of only $40,000 for 1999. The bank has run ads touting its lending services with the tag line, "Where Banking Means Business."

"What we're saying is that if people want service, we're the bank they should bank with because we are local," says Candace Wiest, Inland Empire's president.

Ms. Wiest says community involvement is one low-cost way to build a bank's brand. Her activities as co-chair of the local United Way campaign help the image of her bank, she says.

"We belong to different charities, we get on boards, we sponsor events," Ms. Wiest says.

In addition, the bank advertises in church bulletins and places banners that promote the bank at the local Little League park. It even takes out ads in the game programs.

"We try to portray that it's going to be better to bank with us because you know us," she says. "We're saying that you need a bank that is going to understand your business and where you have a personal relationship."

Anthony S. Abbate, president and chief executive officer of Interchange Bank, Saddle Brook, N.J., and a former chairman of the Independent Bankers Association of America's marketing committee, says that to brand successfully, you first have to know what you are and how you want to come across to the customer.

Interchange, which has about $700 million of assets, competes with big New York City banks such as Chase Manhattan Corp.

As a result of this big-time competition, Interchange spends about $1 million a year on advertising in local newspapers and on cable television and using billboards on buses. That is far more than the average community bank spends.

Interchange's slogan is, "Making your money make money for you."

Interchange also trains employees to make every contact with the customer pleasant.

"When they see your name, they should realize that you are what you represent that you are," he said. "The image has to be based on substance, the actual experience the customer has with employees."

Mr. Abbate says the branding has helped his bank gain stature in the marketplace.

"Even though I'm a community banker and I'm competing against these monoliths of banking, I'm getting my fair share of business," Mr. Abbate says. "Branding has helped because it's a simple message. If you do a good job, then when people think of

a bank, they think of Interchange."

But Mr. Abbate has also been instrumental in developing a generic brand campaign for all community banks. In 1996, the IBAA launched a logo and slogan for its members.

The slogan was "Your community bank, on your corner, in your corner," and the logo was a diamond with four different colors.

"We wanted people to know that when the logo was on the door of a community bank, they'd be treated the same no matter where they were in the country," Mr. Abbate says. "It was an effort to create brand identity for community banks."

Whether a bank uses the IBAA logo, its own, or both, it is important to be consistent, one banker says.

"You repeat key words and pictures in your advertising constantly and other places like brochures, letterhead, and employee communications," says Don Piercy, senior vice president of marketing, sales and facilities at InterWest Bank, a $2.4 billion-asset bank in Oak Harbor, Wash.

InterWest Bank's slogan is, "Home Town Bank," which it include in its radio spots. The bank spends about $1.5 million in advertising and employs mostly radio but will sometimes advertise in publications such as the Puget Sound Business Journal.

Mr. Piercy says his branding strategy is also tied to civic volunteerism.

"You want to get participation by employees at senior citizens' homes or to build a wheelchair ramp, or reading to children.

"That gives a good feeling in the community," Mr. Piercy says.

Ms. Fairley is a freelance writer in New York.

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