When brainstorming over the winter about potential mascots for a children's savings program, First Arkansas Bank and Trust's marketing team considered the usual suspects: superheroes, Barney the dinosaur, cartoon characters and the like.

The problem, the team decided, is that kids quickly outgrow make-believe characters, so if the First Arkansas Bancshares Inc. unit wanted to keep its young customers through their teen years and beyond, it would need a mascot with more staying power.

Then someone suggested a dog — a real one. In short order, the marketing employees visited an animal rescue shelter in the bank's hometown of Jacksonville, where they found and quickly adopted a female golden retriever named Sheila.

"It just clicked," said Roger Sundermeier, First Arkansas Bank and Trust's marketing chief. Sheila "was the one that we wanted to have."

The $548 million-asset bank changed the dog's name to Cash, with the idea of rebranding its First Bucks Savings Account as the Cash Club. Little did the executives know that their efforts to jolt life into its children's product line would lead to a bankwide branding campaign with the dog (who now lives with one of the bank's executives) as the central character.

First Arkansas did not roll out the campaign right away. It started building interest in January, when it put out marketing materials saying simply, "Cash is coming soon." The next month it announced Cash's arrival, and on March 16 it went live with the newly rebranded Cash Club account.

Officials took Cash to schools and community events to encourage savings and promote the account.

Cash Club works like this: With a minimum deposit of $10, a child gets a four-inch tall Cash doll and a card that is stamped after each deposit. After three deposits, the child gets a carrier for the stuffed animal. After 10 deposits, the child can choose from one of five other stuffed animals that are part of Cash's Crew.

The idea, Sundermeier said, is to get kids to pester their parents to go to the bank to make a deposit, so they can build up to the next prize.

In slightly more than a month, the nearly four-year-old kids' product grew from 900 accounts to more than 1,200, he said.

More importantly, the bank's overall revenue has been growing since Cash was introduced; Sundermeier called that growth a direct result of increased foot traffic at its branches.

"It's a great program for the kids, but the natural hope is that while the parents or grandparents are there, that gives us an opportunity to talk about high-interest checking accounts, high-interest savings accounts, our CD rates, trust and estate planning or how to get a mortgage," he said.

To capitalize further on Cash's growing popularity, in March the bank hosted the first of what will be a series of Dog Daze community events.

A local pet-grooming business was on hand to offer its services. Attendees who did not own a pet could visit a mobile adoption unit.

The event also attracted interest from national companies. Petco Animal Supplies Inc. set up a tent. Radio Disney covered the festivities, and Build-A-Bear Workshop Inc. offered stuffed animals, with the proceeds going to local animal shelters.

Mark Wilkinson, founder and principal of NewMarque Group, a brand consulting firm in Santa Barbara, Calif., said that in the current climate, it makes sense to build a campaign around a beloved pet. "The banking industry has lost a lot of trust," he said. "So I can see why they might've chosen to go in that direction."

Sundermeier said the campaign also sends the right message to the bank's staff. "The traits that a dog personifies with the trust and loyalty and the compassion — deep down, that's the stuff that we want our employees to embody."

He would not disclose a price tag for the Cash-themed campaign, except to say it is within First Arkansas' annual marketing budget.

The difference is that this campaign is resonating like no other in the bank's history, he said. "That $55 that we spent with the animal shelter to get Cash has been the best money we've ever spent."

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