Branding and the Internet was a big topic with a host of speakers at the American Bankers Association marketing conference in Orlando last week.

The confusion and cynicism that can possess consumers doing business online can seriously hamper a business that is not backed by a solid brand, one speaker warned.

“People use the Internet because it gives them a sense of power,” said Vada Hill, chief marketing officer of e-business at Fannie Mae. “But there are a lot of people who are negative — not only about mortgages but financial services in general.”

A trusted name and/or product can overcome that, Mr. Hill said. “The process associated with a big, known brand is very important.”

This can be a particularly tricky issue for companies involved in mergers. Chase Manhattan Corp. and J.P. Morgan & Co. could have a tough time blending their Web offerings — Morgan’s online private banking service jpmorgan.com, launched in the spring, and Chase Online Banking, the consumer product rolled out last year.

One thing the companies have agreed on for the offline side is that Morgan will be the brand for the corporate bank, Chase for the consumer businesses.

Bank One Corp. has spent millions to market its Wingspanbank.com Internet-only bank, with limited success. Some observers say the Chicago company would be better off leveraging its established image instead of trying to create a new one for the Web offshoot.

Terri Dial, group executive vice president at Wells Fargo & Co., discussed branding in a service context.

“Customers want to do business with companies that have a strong brand, because a brand promises outstanding service,” she said.

Companies that offer customers just one product and one way to bank — the Internet — are at “a tremendous disadvantage,” Ms. Dial said, noting that people want multiple delivery channels — branches, for example — for price breaks and convenience.

Lori McCarney, executive vice president and director of marketing at Bank of Hawaii, said word of mouth can destroy or build a brand as powerfully on the Internet as in traditional bank marketing.

“A customer’s experience in one channel impacts all channels,” she said.

Bank of Hawaii had a member of its marketing staff work in a branch for five weeks in an attempt to get better acquainted with customers. After doing duty as a teller, concierge, and sales representative, she had a list of 35 ways to fix customer problems.

Banks have not been very efficient at personalized marketing, said William Randle, executive vice president at Huntington National Bank. “Our infrastructure makes it difficult, if not impossible, to focus on one-to-one marketing,” he said.

In an attempt to be more personal in its service and unify information from different customer-contact channels, Huntington formed e-Bank with Compaq Computer Corp., Microsoft Corp., Corillian Corp., and Science Applications International Corp.

“Competing in the new economy requires new partners, new ideas, and new business models,” Mr. Randle said.

But it also requires holding on to the people you already have.

“They are your customers,” he said. “Keep them.”

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