Sign of the (old) times: Bankers still see value in billboards

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When Associated Banc-Corp decided to emphasize its ties to Milwaukee — and take a dig at Canadian-owned rival BMO Harris — it chose a splashy billboard over an online campaign.

The message: Your heart is in Milwaukee. Why is your bank in Canada?

The $33 billion-asset company has been pleased with the buzz created in the month since it placed the billboard along a major downtown thoroughfare.

"It's a really nice opportunity to differentiate ourselves in the marketplace," said Christopher Piotrowski, Associated's chief marketing officer. "That's the strategy we were tapping into."

The move is a reminder that billboards remain a popular advertising channel despite rapid growth in digital marketing.

Advertisers spent $8 billion on outdoor advertising in 2018, with at least $500 million coming from financial services firms, according to data from Magna and the Outdoor Advertising Association of America. The outdoor category is on pace to grow by 5% in 2019, showing resiliency in a year when digital advertising is projected to increase by more than 17%.

"Billboards are definitely a significant part of our approach to the marketplace," Piotrowski said.

To be sure, Associated uses other forms of media to get its messages across. The same can be said for other banks.

“I like to call it surround sound,” said Mark Gibson, a senior consulting associate at Capital Performance Group in Washington. He said a successful advertising campaign involves multiple touchpoints throughout the year.

Customers “wake up in the morning and hear you on the radio," Gibson said. "Then, they’re watching the news while they get dressed and see you."

Still, billboards remain a popular tool for banks.

During the height of the Wells Fargo accounts scandal, the $4.9 billion-asset Peapack Gladstone Financial in Bedminster, N.J., used a digital billboard at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel with the message “All’s not Wells” in an effort to set itself apart from big national banks.

Ernie Perich, president and creative director at Perich Advertising + Design in Ann Arbor, Mich., has designed more than 400 billboards for the $1.7 billion-asset Bank of Ann Arbor over the past nine years. The bank spends up to half its annual marketing budget on billboards.

For Bank of Ann Arbor, Perich has worked to convey one simple underlying message: “Bank of Ann Arbor helps.”

“They are consistently simple; they are consistently green,” Perich said of the messaging. “We own a color in this town. It happens to be a kind of lime green, so over time, once you get familiar with what we’re doing, you know it’s the Bank of Ann Arbor.”

Bank of Ann Arbor is the city’s only locally operated bank, a fact that Perich strives to highlight on billboards.

“We basically try to do advertising that’s likable,” Perich added. “No hard sell, no rates of the month and no boring photos of bankers.“

One notable effort was a billboard proclaiming, “Nonlocal banks think Bo and Woody were in Toy Story,” referring to the famous football rivalry between Bo Shembechler at the University of Michigan and Woody Hayes at Ohio State University that lasted from 1969 to 1978.

Another read, “Nonlocal banks think the Blind Pig is a nursery rhyme,” citing the name of a popular Ann Arbor club.

“That’s your local bank talking to you like only the local bank can,” Perich said.

The cost of a billboard varies based on location, industry experts said.

A billboard can cost as much as $240,000 a year if it's along a heavily trafficked highway. A smaller installation on a local street might cost as little as $4,000 a year.

“It is oftentimes much smarter to find a local road where more of your target audience is driving,” Gibson said. “If they’re a mile from your branch, those can be really targeted and effective at building awareness with people likely to do business with you.”

As important as location is, the real trick with billboards is to deliver a simple, clear message.

“The vast majority of people are walking by or driving by the message,” Gibson said. “The most that you can hope for is that they see your logo and maybe a word or two. You’re not really communicating a complex message. You’re really reminding them of your brand and maybe one idea.”

Perich is more emphatic.

“Most people try to do way too much on their outdoor advertising,” he said. “There are hundreds of millions of dollars wasted every year on billboards that are just too distracting, too hard to read, or you’ve got to squint to see them. Nobody wants to be distracted on the road trying to read small type on a billboard.”

Associated caused a stir last year with a series of billboards featuring Green Bay Packers stars Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. The message was brief — “Make every day feel like game day” — next to a player’s image. The billboards were outfitted with fog machines to replicate the experience of the players emerging from the tunnel at Lambeau Field.

There was one problem. Several drivers mistook the fog for smoke and stopped to report roadside fires, according to local reports.

The billboards, located along highways fans use to drive to games, were intended to remind the team's supporters that Associated "has been the bank of the Packers going back to 1919," with the added message that, "if we can bank an organization as complex as the Green Bay Packers, think of what we can do for you," Piotrowski said.

For Associated, billboards are a tool that can get people thinking about their bank in a way most other channels typically can’t.

"Our competition isn't just local," Piotrowski said. "It's large, national brands and online-only banks. We're trying to get people to stop and think about the institutions they do business with. Does it give back to the community and volunteer the way Associated does? It's really important to have that conversation. If we don't, the default for most people will be the big banks."

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