No industry in America is more connected to a region of the country than the auto industry is to Michigan and Ohio. So it's no surprise that, as car manufacturers undergo a massive - and painful - restructuring, the two Rust Belt states are leading the nation in lost manufacturing jobs.

First Place Bank in Warren, Ohio, can't replace those jobs, but it is doing its part to renew some pride in the beleaguered car industry by stirring up interest in the Chevrolet Cruze, a new, fuel-efficient vehicle that is being manufactured at General Motors' Lordstown, Ohio, and Flint, Mich., plants.

Specifically the $4.3 billion-asset bank is running a sweepstakes in which it will award Cruzes to three lucky contestants in three Midwest markets hard hit by the recession. And though the bank won't be giving away the cars until May, the promotion is already generating considerable excitement in First Place's market - and driving significant foot traffic to its 44 branches in Ohio and Michigan.

To get the word out First Place is running ads on television and in local newspapers and magazines. The ads, which were produced in tandem with Contemporary Design Group in Cleveland, feature a note from First Place chief executive Steven Lewis on the value of community banking and how important the auto industry is to the area.

In an interview, Lewis said it's "silly" that community banks in the region haven't had more of a relationship with G.M. and other large manufacturers. One of the key aims of the campaign is to win the loyalty of G.M. employees and, as part of the Cruze promotion, the bank is sending representatives to the G.M. plants to solicit customers.

"I think it's stupid that we have a lot of sizable organizations in that community and they end up doing business with somebody out of town," Lewis says. "Why shouldn't I promote the Cruze? Why shouldn't they allow me to come in and solicit their employees for banking relationships? Everybody wins in that relationship."

How many employees actually open accounts with First Place remains to be seen, but Tom Mock, a spokesman for the Lordstown plant, says that the campaign has certainly helped boost employee morale.

"It's been a tremendous asset in terms of uplifting our workforce here," he says. "The bank has gone about saluting our workforce for the great job that they're doing and how proud they are to partner with us."

Karl Barnhart, managing director for New York-based marketing company CoreBrand, is from Butler, Pa, which is a short drive from Warren. He says the promotion is a "terrific" way for the embattled auto and financial services industries to prop themselves up.

"The Warren area has been devastated by the declines in the auto industry and is reeling from the collapse of the financial markets brought on by the mortgage mess," he says. "This promotion helps attack two problems at once: It helps build confidence in a local bank while restoring hope in the American auto industry. It's a really clever idea."

The promotion works like this: Each month through April, First Place will draw one name in each of the three markets that the bank serves - Youngstown, Cleveland and Detroit - and give the winners a car key. Then in May, First Place will hold three different events, one in each market, where the 24 qualifiers will see if their key is the one that unlocks the Cruze's door.

In the first months after the promotion was launched, the Web site, RaceToFirstPlaceBank.com, received some 18,000 hits, on average, per week. Applicants, though, cannot enter the sweepstakes online; all entry forms must be brought into a bank branch, and in the first month the bank received about 25,000 entry forms.

"From a business perspective, we want to drive people into our branches," Lewis says. "We use the term 'take us for a test drive.'"

Lewis says it's too soon to tell if the promotion has led to any meaningful boosts in deposits. Still, while added deposits would be nice, the ultimate goal is to build brand awareness.

"When a customer becomes dissatisfied with their financial institution, when there's another merger taking place, who's the first institution top of mind when they are looking to change their relationship?" he says. "We're all trying to achieve that kind of awareness and I can't think of any promotion that we've done in the last 25 years that has created more brand awareness than this campaign has."

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