As their competition with big banks heats up, some community banks are turning to advertising with an attitude.

Using newspapers, radio, television, and even billboards, small banks have taken direct shots at big bank competition that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. Long lines, excessive dependence on technology, and impersonal service are some of the favored themes.

"When we had out-of-state banks enter our market, those ads were a tremendously effective marketing tool," says Anthony B. Davis, president of F&M Bank Corp., the holding company for the $750-million asset F&M Bank in Tulsa, Okla."We certainly found it to separate us from the competition," Mr. Davis says.

In one billboard campaign, F&M compared big banks to diapered babies. The tagline read, "Tired of messy bank changes?''

Banks contemplating this style of advertising might take instruction from some of the case studies included here.

Ironically, many small banks -- particularly in the West -- learned the art of big-bank bashing from a large financial institution, the former Glendale Federal. The California thrift, now part of Golden State Bancorp, gained attention in the mid-1990s for its clever ads that artfully took on large banks such as Wells Fargo & Co.

One radio campaign, for example, featured comic Al Franken playing his "Saturday Night Live" character, the self-deprecating cable show host Stuart Smalley. One ad has Smalley complaining about "Stinkin' Bankin," in which long lines, hidden fees, and ill-mannered employees were the norm. Smalley's advice: switch your account by phone to Glendale, the "nurturing" bank.

Ray Kwong, chief executive officer of WiseGuys, a Pasadena, Calif., ad agency that created the "Smalley'' campaign, says that attack ads have to be entertaining and tasteful to work. Of course, taste is subjective. In one Glendale ad, a horse and carriage, the symbol of Wells Fargo, appear in a circle with a slash through it. The headline was "Buck 'em."

"That caused a lot of buzz," Mr. Kwong says.

While some consumers might balk at such tough-minded advertising, Mr. Kwong says it helped turn a struggling thrift into a thriving retail banking institution. "Glendale became the third-most-recognized banking name in California," he says.

Glendale's success certainly spawned imitators, but not always with the same positive business results. One problem is that many attack ads don't convey the benefits of turning to the advertiser, says Charlene Stern, president of Stern Marketing, a Berkeley, Calif. firm.

To counter that effect, bank bashing ads must perform the dual role of capturing consumer attention while positioning the advertiser as a superior alternative. PFF Bancorp Inc., a $3 billion asset bank company in Pomona, Calif., carefully balances digs against big banks with discussion of its focus on customer service. "Some of our ads are sarcastic but they still end with a friendly tone," says David Sweet, PFF's vice president and director of marketing.

That friendliness lies in the smiling faces of its own employees, who are regularly featured in the bank's advertising. In one example, a PFF employee is seen jumping through a hoop in a demonstration of customer service beyond the call of duty. The message is further reinforced at the branch level. Every new account holder receives a call within 30 days by a PFF staff member asking if service has met the expectations raised by the advertising campaign.

Reputation for service aside, Mr. Sweet still attributes the rising number of account holders to the biting message of its advertising. "You have to tell it like it is," he says. "But you've also got to be innovative in your product offering and how you find customers."

In Texas, where community banks are struggling with the entry of Wells Fargo and other large institutions, ads that implicitly criticize big banks are becoming commonplace. Texas National Bank, a $34 million-asset bank in Tomball, Tex., tweaks its big-bank competition by calling its own employees "bona-fide human beings."

By using this term in its advertising, the bank emphasizes bank officers who live and work where their customers do, says Steve Vaughan, the bank's chief executive officer. "My employees have to live with the ramifications of their decisions when they go home at night,'' he says.

Omnibank, a $240 million asset bank in Houston, once used a clever play on words to take on NationsBank before it merged to become Bank of America Corp. A print ad carried the headline, "We are not your nation's bank. We are your community bank."

Julie Cripe, Omnibank's executive vice president, says her bank's current ads make more indirect references to what is perceived as bureaucratic big bank service. Print ads say that "Omnibankers" take the time to learn "you and your business;" another emphasizes "decisions, not delays" in approving financing.

The Omnibank campaign extends into public relations, where the bank promotes its role in community fund raising and local economic development. "We've been quiet for too long," Ms. Cripe says.

Still, banks that adopt an attack posture in their advertising have found that it is sometimes appropriate to return to a more traditional footing. After all, Mr. Davis says, you don't want to beat customers over the head with a negative approach continually. As a result, F&M print ads now take a more subtle approach, emphasizing the traditional community-bank strength of personal service.

One print ad, developed by Littlefield Marketing and Advertising in Tulsa, promises "an interaction with every transaction." Another asks, "Have you ever tried explaining your special financial circumstances to a machine?"

The new ads acknowledge that consumers looking for stress-free banking will make a choice regardless of size or state of origin. "Most consumers and corporate customers alike want prompt, courteous service," F& M's Mr. Davis says. "If the megabanks could provide that, then all things being equal, customers might select one of those banks."

Ms. Monahan is a writer in Seattle.

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