U.S. Bancorp is rolling out an assortment of marketing ploys to gin up interest in its fledgling mutual funds.

Starting in January, the $21 billion-asset banking company will offer a 10% senior citizen discount off the sales charge for its Qualivest funds to investors who are 59 1/2 or older.

And in another bold move, the bank hopes to introduce four "funds of funds" that blend the bank's proprietary funds to match investment objectives ranging from conservative to aggressive.

U.S. Bancorp is awaiting Securities and Exchange Commission approval to launch the funds in the first quarter.

Providing retail sales sizzle is increasingly important, regardless of the size and maturity of mutual funds, executives with the Portland, Ore.- based bank said.

"I think banks are missing the boat," said Timothy J. Leach, president of Qualivest Capital Management, the bank's proprietary mutual fund unit. "When you have very carnivorous mutual fund companies out there coming up with innovative ways to do things, you have to come up with innovative things yourself."

And this aggressive regional bank is sparing no effort to differentiate its funds, which hold $1.6 billion in assets, from the crowd.

Mr. Leach came up with the idea for a senior citizen discount after watching his father scramble for bargains during a recent family visit.

"There's this whole herd of senior America that lives for senior discounts," Mr. Leach said.

Some of the marketing techniques have added benefits, he said. For example, packaging mutual funds into a "fund of funds" and labeling them by investment style should make them easier for bank employees to sell, Mr. Leach said.

That dovetails with the bank's plan to emphasize mutual fund sales through its platform staff.

The bank's platform sales force will increase tenfold next year - to more than 400 from 42, said Rick O. Bowman, a U.S. Bancorp executive who oversees platform sales.

About 40 employees will be added through the acquisition of West One Bancorp, Boise, Idaho, to be concluded later this month. The rest will come through expanded training of U.S. Bank workers.

Asset allocation funds constructed from proprietary components may also relieve the bank of having to explain away the youth of its proprietary funds.

"It helps shifts the dialogue on what you're selling to customer need rather than performance and brand," said David Master, a consultant with Optima Group, Fairfield, Conn.

But Mr. Leach has plans to more directly solve that problem for at least the Qualivest Small Company Value Fund, a star performer modeled on a collective trust the bank has managed for more than 12 years.

But some observers question whether banks can expect retail sales to ever attract large asset volumes.

"Even with the best implemented retail marketing strategies, the bulk of their opportunity will be on the institutional side," observed Mr. Master.

But Mr. Leach is unintimidated.

He is readying a retail mutual fund wrap product for the first half of next year.

"Frankly, I'm late on that because other things have been taking the front burner, " he said. "We're flying."

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