Washington Mutual Inc. says its effort to introduce its brand in California and Florida is succeeding.

The Seattle thrift said last week that it ranks among the three most- recognized financial services brands in those states.

Spokeswoman Libby Hutchinson said an ad campaign that features appealing dogs and portrays Wamu tellers as celebrities has helped to differentiate the $158 billion-asset company from its competitors. "We've struck a chord with people, who realize that we don't operate or advertise like other banks or thrifts," she said.

Washington Mutual is famous in its home state for the "rodeo grandmas" ad campaign, which featured four octogenarian cowgirls.

The thrift began a multimedia blitz in July featuring, among other things, a forlorn pup dressed in a collegiate sweater emblazoned with the Washington Mutual "W" logo. The caption reads: "Let us Make a Fan Out of You."

Washington Mutual has made the pet sweaters available for sale and has sold 225 so far.

Like the rodeo grandma ads, the campaign was designed by the Seattle office of McCann-Erickson and is running in cities where American Savings and Great Western Financial Corp. had branches. Wamu bought the two thrifts in 1996 and 1997, respectively.

Washington Mutual would not reveal how much it is spending on the campaign.

Charles B. Wendel, president of Financial Institutions Consulting, described Wamu's establishment of a strong brand in its new markets as "unusually fast."

"They can beat out a lot of small banks that don't have the advertising dollars, but can still maintain a creative spark that is distinct from a big bank approach," Mr. Wendel said.

Other components of the latest campaign take a tongue-in-cheek approach toward Washington Mutual's reputation for personal service.

In one of the television commercials, for example, customers are so enamored of the thrift's tellers that they scramble to get their autographs. Another ad promotes Washington Mutual teller trading cards and tours of celebrity teller homes.

Despite the initial positive signs, analysts said it is too early to declare Wamu a success in California and Florida.

The thrift has done well signing up customers for its free checking accounts, but James R. Bradshaw, an analyst with Pacific Crest Securities in Portland, Ore., said, "You can hand out a lot of free checking, but that won't make you the money."

Washington Mutual is attracting customers who generally keep lower balances than those of its larger, bank competitors, such as BankAmerica Corp., Wells Fargo & Co., and First Union Corp., he said. "Those larger accounts are bigger money-makers," Mr. Bradshaw said.

Van Kasper & Co. analyst Joseph K. Morford said free checking has translated into profits for Wamu in its home markets in the Pacific Northwest because of overdraft fees and cross-selling. However, he said, Washington Mutual must make good on the claims in its ads to maintain that profitability and hang on to customers.

"Free checking is an attractive carrot, but the key now is to deliver on the customer service that they promise," Mr. Morford said.

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