While some banking companies have national aspirations for their funds, Unionbancal Corp. of San Francisco and some others say they are finding success with more localized marketing.
Rather than sell through brokers like Merrill Lynch and Charles Schwab, Unionbancal is pitching its Highmark Funds through regional shops, said R. Gregory Knopf, managing director and head of the fund unit.
"We're shooting for the regional broker-dealers in the West," he said.
Assets in the Highmark Funds, $6 million in 1996, now total $10 billion. "Realistically we're shooting for $14 billion under management by 2003," Mr. Knopf said.
Unionbancal, which is mostly owned by Bank of Tokyo Mitsubishi Ltd., sends portfolio managers to talk with businesspeople and consumers face-to-face. Financial services companies with less than $20 billion under management "really have an opportunity to do that," Mr. Knopf said, and such attention often startles the recipients.
Another advocate of this narrowcast-style marketing is Michele Dalton, a product manager for the Ark Funds of Baltimore-based Allfirst Bank, which is owned by Allied Irish Banks PLC.
"People drive down Route 95 or are waiting at a traffic light and they can't help but to see our billboards," Ms. Dalton said. "Our '800' number isn't ringing off the hook, but it puts our name in their mind."
Assets under management at Allfirst have grown to $6.1 billion, from $3.5 billion in 1996, Ms. Dalton said. Aside from billboards, the bank has used newspaper advertisements in the Baltimore area and three western Pennsylvania counties.
"Our performance has been really good, and that has prompted some third parties to come seeking us out, but our priority remains this area," Ms. Dalton said.
But some banks say that, in an electronic age where a physical presence is no longer required, limited marketing is foolish.
Lloyd Wennlund, the managing director of Northern Trust Corp.'s mutual funds, said people have so many investment options today that banks have to consider every distribution method.
Chicago-based Northern Trust, which has $35 billion of assets under management, sponsors an America Online chat room where investors can discuss the bank's technology fund. "We can't offer specialized services to an enormous audience, but we are giving our clients something that might make them keep our brand name in mind," Mr. Wennlund said.
Carmen Effron, a principal with CF Effron Co. of Westport, Conn., said the Internet is a good way for smaller banks to start promoting their investment management products.
"People get solicitations and glance at ads for big banks and big mutual fund companies, but if they don't know the name they will ignore it," she said. "There is nothing to stop a bank with a unique product from excelling nationally," but a local focus makes sense.
"People trust the bank around the corner."