ATLANTA -- NationsBank Corp. has paid $40 million to be the official bank sponsor of the 1996 Summer Olympics. And the Charlotte-based bank certainly intends to make the most of this once-in-a-lifetime marketing opportunity.

But right now, with the Atlanta games only two years away, the bank getting the most mileage out of Olympics-related marketing in Atlanta seems to be rival Wachovia Corp. for a fraction of the cost.

Wachovia, based in Winston-Salem, N.C., has put up billboards all over town touting a Visa credit card that allows customers to make a donation to the U.S. team with every purchase. NationsBank has its own billboards, of course, but these "image" ads promote its Olympics sponsorship rather than a particular product.

NationsBank does not plan to introduce Olympics-related product promotions until sometime next year. The Southeast's largest bank, with $164 billion of assets, vows to leverage its $40 million investment on several different fronts: product promotion, brand-name awareness, and employee sales incentives.

"We're going to take advantage of our sponsorship and be visible in the marketplace Wachovia notwithstanding," says executive vice president of corporate affairs Enoch J. Prow, an Atlanta-based official who is in charge of NationsBank's overall Olympics strategy.

The problem for NationsBank is that its $40 million sponsorship deal with the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, the local organizing group, does not protect it from credit card promotions done by other banks under the aegis of Visa, which has its own $40 million worldwide sponsorship agreement with the International Olympics Committee.

To conduct Olympics-related marketing, Visa member banks only have to pay their own advertising costs. There's no special fee to Visa.

Wachovia is the most visible of three Visa members that have exploited the Olympics connection so far. MBNA, the big Delaware-based credit card bank, sent out a direct-mailing solicitation last year, and Fidelity National Bank, an Atlanta-area community bank, has done direct mailing and print ads.

More players will surely enter the field. The 1996 games, the first ever to be held in the southeastern United States, are simply too attractive a marketing opportunity to pass up. "The Olympics will probably be the defining event in this city for decades to come," says Robert Copeland, Wachovia's director of marketing in Atlanta.

So-called "ambush marketing," in which companies use Olympics-related advertising without paying full sponsorship fees, has bedeviled Olympics organizers for several years now. Wendy's International Inc. won notoriety earlier this year by running television commercials that spoofed Olympic events during the winter games in Lillehammer, Norway. Wendy's wasn't an official sponsor, but McDonald's was.

American Express has also caused trouble for Visa in previous games.

Technically speaking, Wachovia is not an ambush marketer, since it is a Visa member and Visa is an official sponsor. "We have been very careful to make sure we're following the rules on this," Mr. Copeland says.

But this may be a distinction without a difference. "In the official world, there can be no hint that Wachovia has any official position with the Olympics," says independent sports marketer John Bevilaqua in Atlanta. "However, in the minds of the consumer, there could probably be a great deal of confusion."

Mr, Bevilaqua says an official sponsor such as NationsBank "has to take a very aggressive marketing position" in the face of the Visa challenge. "It basically puts the onus on those companies that have paid for the right to be associated with the games to be better marketers," he says.

"There'11 be a number of other banks all doing the same thing," agrees Brad Iversen, director of marketing communications for NationsBank in Charlotte. "But NationsBank is the official bank sponsor, so we'll look real different."

NationsBank does have one big advantage: its sponsorship comes with the fight to promote the full range of bank products, not just credit cards. NationsBank already sells Olympic-design checks to Atlanta customers.

By late 1995, NationsBank will be using the Olympics to promote every retail product it has: checking accounts, certificates of deposit, credit cards, home-equity loans, mortgages, and mutual funds. The reason for waiting that long is so the general public, at least outside of Atlanta, won't begin focusing on the event until then.

"That's something all Olympic sponsors grapple with," Mr. Bevilaqua says.

"If you start too early, people tune you out. But if you wait too long, you get drowned out in the noise."

Mr. Iversen said NationsBank, relying on advice from consultants and other Olympic sponsors, has decided that "twelve months out is not too late to really begin the program."

The opening ceremonies for the Atlanta games are scheduled for July 20, 1996.

NationsBank has already conducted some campaigns that will serve as prototypes for its Olympics effort. Last June, during an Olympics practice competition held in San Antonio, Texas, NationsBank used directmail and point-of-sale advertising in its branches there to lure customers into a contest called "Bank the Gold." The customers received product discounts and the chance to win cash or merchandise.

Mr. Iversen says the one month campaign, which was mainly targeted towards installment loans, credit cards, and deposit accounts, increased sales in the San Antonio area by 20% compared to the preceding year.

NationsBank hosted several similar events this year: figure skating competitions in Washington, D.C. and Richmond, as well as a gymnastic event in Greenville, S.C. "We've taken it down throughout the franchise," Mr. Prow says.

NationsBank will also use the Olympics connection to boost its own employee morale. The prototype was last year's "Bay Area Bound" program in which NationsBank employees who achieved certain sales goals were rewarded with expensepaid trips to San Francisco.

Following up on that effort, NationsBank recently introduced its "Olympic Heroes" program, in which 27 winners will be awarded trips to the Atlanta games.

Based on the experiences of past Olympics sponsors, NationsBank is likely to reap its greatest benefits in improved public image. "There's no doubt that when you look at the surveys, people do hold the Olympics sponsors in very high esteem," says Jim Andrews, editorial director for lEG Sponsorship Report in Chicago, a newsletter that tracks events marketing. "Now whether that translates into people actually opening more checking accounts is always the big question ."

First Interstate Corp., which sponsored the 1984 summer games in Los Angeles, reportedly for $4 million, found that its Olympics-related marketing contributed mainly to image enhancement.

"We did not believe, and surveys afterwards showed, that you could really quantify it in terms of selling product," says senior vice president of corporate community affairs Diane Siegel.

NationsBank acknowledges that a financial institution can never get the same sales boost from sports marketing as a consumer products company. "It's not as easy as if you have a consumable product, like a CocaCola or a candy bar," Mr. Prow says. "People don't just walk up to a corner stand and buy a checking account or apply for a credit card."

But heightened brand-name awareness would clearly be a major plus for a company that is only two years old and harbors national aspirations. Formed in 1992 from the union of NCNB Corp., Charlotte, an.d Atlantabased C&S/Sovran Corp, NationsBank is now the thirdlargest U.S. bank, with ambitious plans for living up to its name.

Having its moniker constantly before a national television audience in 1996 can only help further NationsBank's expansion goals.

"When they do come to town," Mr. Andrews says, "they're not brand new and they're not a little bank out of the southeast. People will say, 'Oh, it's the bank of the Olympics ." A Crowded Field Of Spotty Banks

ATLANTA -- If the experience here is any indicator, sports marketing is very popular with banks.

Wachovia Corp. sponsors the hugely popular Peachtree Road Race, an annual 6.2-mile run held in the Georgia capital, while First Union Corp. backs its namesake First Union Grand Prix bicycle race, another yearly event.

No other southeastern bank, however, is as committed to sports marketing as NationsBank Corp.

NationsBank's most visible sports promotion is its official sponsorship of the 1996 Summer Olympics, which will be held in Atlanta.

But it also sponsors, in basketball the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Southwest Conference; the Atlanta Braves, Baltimore Orioles, and Texas Rangers baseball teams; and the Kemper Open, a Professional Golfers Association event.

NationsBank corporate customers include the Dallas Cowboys; Houston Oilers; Tampa Bay Buccaneers; and the National Football League itself.

"The fact is, the American public is keenly interested in sports," says Brad Iversen, NationsBank's director of marketing communications in Charlotte. "If a bank can make a strong connection between a sport and what they can do for customers, it really helps improve the perception of the bank."

To capitalize on this linkage, NationsBank has an entire professional sports and entertainment group based in Charlotte that is part of its trust unit.

Led by former Baltimore Colt wide receiver Mike Siani, the group was created last year to cultivate relationships with well-paid athletes and entertainers.

Mr. Siani has lately been using NationsBank's Olympics promotional activity to add Olympic stars to his client roster.

But sports marketing is not all fun and games. There can be a down side, as when the company gets caught in the cross fire of fan loyalties.

The classic case occurred when Charlotte and Baltimore were among five cities bidding on the latest National Football League franchise expansion. Nationsbank operates in both markets and felt compelled to back both efforts.

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