The Epic Summer Road Trip to Loosen Up a Big Bank's Image

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Any bank can tout its commitment to volunteerism by buying a box of company T-shirts and spending a day at a local nonprofit.

But making volunteerism a core part of a company's brand requires something more — say, a 12,000-mile bus trek through 39 cities over three months.

Just ask U.S. Bancorp. Since late April the Minneapolis company has driven a giant blue bus across the country — from California to Tennessee — with the goal of encouraging more than 150,000 people to volunteer in its local markets.

It's more than just a summer road trip, the company says.

The initiative, branded as "Community Possible," is designed as a relay. Two bank employees are assigned to the three-month bus trip. Their job is to participate in events in each city ranging from landscaping at a zoo to helping out at a children's summer camp.

The idea is to "create a wave of volunteerism," said Reba Dominski, senior vice president of corporate social responsibility, who spearheaded the initiative.

Reshaping the $423 billion-asset company's brand is also a key goal. "This is so representative of who we are at U.S. Bank," and Chief Executive Richard Davis embraced the plan when Dominski pitched it to him directly, she said.

It's an adventurous spin on community development — and it illustrates one of the many ways that banks are putting social issues at the center of marketing campaigns.

KeyCorp in Cleveland, for instance, has made splashy investments in low-income communities in the past year. Those investments have helped the $96 billion-asset bank quickly improve its image among consumers, according to a recent survey from the Reputation Institute.

And Synovus Financial in Columbus, Ga., which finished No. 2 in the survey, requires its local market executives to chair nonprofits and economic development organizations.

In a similar way, the U.S. Bancorp bus relay will likely be a boon to the company's image, according to Stephen Hahn-Griffiths, a vice president at the Reputation Institute.

U.S. Bancorp ranked 16th in the Reputation Institute survey of 33 large banks.

"Banks are still viewed as large and amorphous institutions that serve local markets," Hahn-Griffiths said. "This is a way to make the bank more human."

Focusing on community development has been a go-to way for companies to boost their brands since the financial crisis, in particular.

The trick for most companies is to find an issue that resonates with its customers — and fits with the company culture.

"One of the cardinal sins of reputation is you do the right thing and nobody notices," Hahn-Griffiths said.

U.S. Bancorp's Davis has alluded to the importance of Community Possible — which is part of a broader brand-positioning strategy — over the past few months.

Like many regional banks, it is under pressure to control costs as rates remain low. Expenses edged up 3% in the first quarter from a year earlier, to $2.7 billion, due partly to marketing costs.

U.S. Bancorp, which reports second-quarter results on July 15, won't say how much the bus trip or the total brand initiative will cost. But expenses tied to the brand strategy and advertising were expected to increase by as much as $25 million in the second quarter, Davis said during an April conference call.

Holding off on that spending isn't an option, Davis said.

"We are going to stick with it, and we are going to get this thing done and get our story out there, as we think it deserves to be told," he said.

It took some creative thinking to bring the cross-country bus relay to life.

Like many big firms, U.S. Bancorp has encouraged volunteerism for years, including by offering paid time off to employees to work at local charities, according to Dominski.

Making volunteerism a focus of the company's brand, as well as its community development work, required an interactive approach, she said.

Dominski and her team began sketching out ideas last year. The offbeat result was ultimately inspired by several unexpected sources, including high school relay races and the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile.

"I remember walking into [my boss'] office, and saying, 'This is crazy, but we hope you like it,' " Dominski said.

Starting in San Diego, the bus zigzagged across the Southwest, up through Colorado and the Rocky Mountains, across the Pacific Northwest, through Montana and North Dakota, down into the southern Plains States.

The trip will end later this month in Minneapolis, coinciding with the opening of the U.S. Bank Stadium, where the Minnesota Vikings will play this fall.

There are currently two U.S. Bancorp employees on the bus: Dixcy Sulistyo, who works in the bank's community development office in California; and Jibreel Black, a former college football lineman who also spent time with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Black — who is currently pursuing an acting career — is a friend of Sulistyo's, whom she recruited for the three-month trip.

Black said that his favorite part of the trip so far has been volunteering to build homes. He has also enjoyed traveling to new places — especially Billings, Mont., where he traveled up the Beartooth Pass, he said.

"Going to the towns, and having the employees from the bank take us in and show us what makes the town special" has been an eye-opening experience, Black said.

Sulistyo said that working with college students in Sacramento was one her favorite activities.

While on their three-month tour, Black and Sulistyo said they have also expanded their culinary horizons.

A few unexpected finds? Guacamole served with pomegranate seeds in Phoenix. Also, the classic "horseshoe" sandwich in southern Illinois, which includes Texas toast, French fries and a cheesy sauce.

"The experience has been amazing," Sulistyo said.

And the bank's marketers hope it will leave a good taste in the mouths of their bosses and potential new customers, too.

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