Bankers constantly fret about how to get customers into the branches since face time with a teller or sales rep is the best way to sell products and services and deepen the customer relationship.

Senior leadership at Fifth Third Bank faced this quandary after opening a string of de novos and expanding through acquisitions. What they hit upon to grab the attention of the public is to give away money-a quarter-of-a-million dollars worth.

"This campaign is a little bit different than some of the things that we have tried in the past," says the bank's Chief Marketing Officer Larry Magnesen. "We've been fairly active in the last few years in opening de novo banking centers in some of our key markets such as Chicago, Orlando, Tampa Bay, Nashville, etc. We wanted to see if we could put in a new program to put that plan [of building branch traffic] into hyper drive. The idea was to use something that would appeal to anyone, in this case winning a quarter of a million dollars, to get people who didn't even think they were in the market for a financial product to come in and see us."

To promote the sweepstakes, Fifth Third, which has $67 billion in total assets, launched an offensive geared around scratch-off tickets and the slogan "Unlock Your Dreams". The campaign is being run in print and online, on the radio, billboards and through the mail, targeting markets Fifth Third recently entered. Major acquisitions include R-G Crown Bank, which expanded the bank's presence in Orlando and Tampa as well as Jacksonville and Augusta, GA; First Horizon, which brought it into Atlanta; and First Charter Corp., which brought it into the Charlotte, NC market.

The cleverest of the ads, which were produced by Minneapolis-based ad agency Olson, is a print ad that looks like the scratch-off tickets being distributed. Written against a gray background (as though it was a game piece) is "GRAB A QUARTER," and below, in a smaller font, "A QUARTER MILLION, THAT IS." Olson made it appear as though it had been scratched out with an actual quarter.

Magnesen says the bank can keep track of penetration rates by customers going online to 53unlockyourdreams.com and entering their game-piece codes to register. Detroit-based ePrize, which runs the sweepstakes end of the campaign, gave rough estimates for how many entries would be completed online, and Magnesen says entries are five times that estimate, though the bank refused to release specifics for competitive reasons.

"We've been very pleased by the amount of traffic that it's driving and of course there will be additional analysis on the back end to take a look at how many of these people have converted to new customer relationships or how many existing customers decided to add a service as a result of a scratch-off card," he says.

Both customers and non-customers can walk into any of Fifth Third's nearly 1,300 branches, go up to the teller and get a game piece. The "Unlock Your Dreams" sweepstakes ended at the beginning of November. The grand prize of $250,000 will be announced in early December, Magnesen says. In 22 of the bank's markets, a $10,000 prize will be awarded and over 42,000 people will be instant winners of a $10 MasterCard gift card. All told, the Cincinnati-based institution will give away nearly $900,000 in sweepstakes and scratch-off prizes.

People love free money, says Ron Shevlin, a research analyst for Boston-based Aite Group. "The really big question becomes: With whom was this campaign successful?" Shevlin notes that when several banks gave away iPods to new customers they touted how popular the response was. But a year later it turned out that many of those new customers had either gone stagnant or left the bank altogether.

Shevlin also points out that results could be deceiving. "Given the timing of [the campaign], I think they run the risk of over-attributing results to the sweepstakes," Shevlin says. "I've had conversations with people from credit unions and smaller banks in the past few weeks and they are all seeing huge jumps in traffic in the branches and the call centers. People are looking to spread their money around."

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.