First Independent Bank used to be the banking equivalent of a Buick.

In its hometown of Vancouver, Wash., many people knew of the century-old bank, but thought of it as fusty. "It was very much your grandfather's bank," says Tammi Olund, the senior marketing manager.

Now it is going for a more vibrant image. Instead of the rate ads and product promotions it favored before, First Independent is running a branding campaign that it hopes will give it a more youthful appeal. The ads have a contemporary look and a witty tone.

One print ad targeting small businesses features a close-up of a man in a suit, his weary eyes making the message feel personal. "Mama told me," says the headline above the photo. "There'd be years like this," it finishes below. The copy talks about how the bank can help with anything from cash management to succession planning.

Jeffry Pilcher, the chief executive officer of the brand consultant ICONiQ, says the First Independent campaign stands out at a time when many banks are playing it safe.

"It's a fresh look, it's hard to ignore, and it's delivering a relevant message," Pilcher says. "I like the brashness of their campaign. It's got a bold tone."

The $911 million-asset First Independent is a family-owned bank, with 20 branches in four counties. Still a banker at age 97, E.W. Firstenburg, who became a head cashier at First Independent in the 1930's and bought it in the 1950's, operates the office it has in the retirement center where he lives, and his son, William J. Firstenburg, is the bank's chairman, president and CEO.

Grady Britton in Portland, Ore., develops its advertising, and Paige McCarthy, a partner there, says the ads are purposely infused with attitude, to reflect First Independent's personality. "This is a bank that doesn't like passivity," McCarthy says. "They have to look how they act."

Its retooling started with a new logo and tag line, "Ready When You Are." For decades the logo had been a blue circle with a gold number one inside. First Independent switched to an image of red steps, to symbolize that customers can rely on the bank at every stage of life.

A teaser campaign kicked off the launch of the new brand four years ago. "They wanted to announce that a major change was taking place," McCarthy says. "The bank was investing a lot in itself with refreshing branches, adding technology, and bringing in key people on the staff, all sorts of changes."

Looking like sculptures, big red steps began popping up around town, cordoned off with construction tape. Curious passersby could go to the Web address printed on the tape - bigredsteps.com.

Those who visited the site saw a countdown clock, with no further explanation. They also could upload photos they took of the 10-foot-tall steps in the mall, on sidewalks or along jogging paths.

At the appointed time, the site switched over to a new one for First Independent.

Pilcher says the guerilla marketing was a "powerful" way to generate curiosity.

He also says the changes at First Independent are likely to draw a younger crowd. "It was basically a 100-year-old bank with the kind of image you'd expect - sleepy, conservative, dull," he says. "Now, I think it is positioned well to pick up young people."

That is critical, Olund says, because a few years ago about 65 percent of the bank's customers had been age 65 or older. Though recent comparison data was not immediately available, that percentage is shrinking, she says.

This spring the bank is heading into a second phase of its "Life in the New Economy" ad campaign. The new work includes branch posters that stress it is lending.

"Okay. Who here needs money?" says one poster, with a photo of a fist clutching a thick pile of twenties.

"Back by popular demand. Expansion," another says. "The business loans are here! Just ask."

McCarthy says as the first phase of the campaign got underway early last year, the recession had been deepening. People worried about their financial security and felt mistrustful of the banking industry.

The message behind the ads then: "You need more knowledge than ever, and we're your partner," McCarthy says.

But the tone of the campaign is shifting now, from "Here we go, everyone. Hold on and let's get through this together," to "Alright, things are picking up speed," she says.

Without saying so explicitly, the ads suggest the bank is strong, another quality that can help set it apart in the Northwest, Pilcher says. "Having somebody that looks fresh and ready for the next century is a powerful subliminal message. I think people will really respond."

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