Recent conversations with bankers about budgetary "belt tightening" have given me flashbacks to my first job in banking.

When I was hired to manage a bank's first in-store branch, I first developed a fondness for "guerrilla marketing."

In today's environment of trying to do more with less, I find the idea of guerrilla marketing as relevant as ever. First, it favors creativity over expense. Second, it can often serve as a team-building and morale-boosting exercise. That's getting the most bang for your buck.

The first bank president I worked for was brilliant and cheap. (Those traits can come in handy these days.) He had a way of getting you revved up to go out and do things more sensible people would shy away from.

Pulling me aside not long before my branch opened, he told me that my salary was, in fact, his marketing budget for that new market. They were not going to spend money on traditional advertising channels like newspaper, radio, or billboards.

But he was going to let me get away with trying things that the "No Police" back at the main office (every bank has some) would normally squash. His instruction to me: "Just don't do anything extraordinarily stupid or get us sued."

With that instruction, and without much working knowledge of bank marketing etiquette, we set out to get noticed. One of the big advantages I did have was that my "Popsicle stand" of a branch (as the rest of the bank called it) was located in a grocery store. Potential customers were never more than 50 feet away.

We figured out a few things pretty quickly. Fliers were more effective than newspaper ads when we smilingly handed them directly to customers. Our dry-erase boards were very effective billboards when they were positioned in high-traffic areas and their messages were kept fresh. The PA system was the most effective radio station any small business could want. And no amount of marketing makes as strong an impression as simply shaking more hands and kissing more babies than the competition.

After one meeting at our bank's main office, the marketing director showed me a storage closet with old caps, pens, coffee mugs, Koozies and other assorted things collecting dust.

I did not need to be asked twice. I took all of it, even though I had less space than they did. The trunk of my car became my branch's storage closet.

We soon had more material with the bank's logo circulating from our location than the rest of our bank's branches combined. And the good will created with existing and potential customers from something as simple as a cap, a mug or even a Koozie is amazing.

I began allowing branch employees take an hour each week, on the clock, to "shop" local businesses. And when I say "shop," I mean shop. They would visit stores where they knew they would likely buy something, and they would make a point to introduce themselves to the manager or owner as they made the purchase. Folks who would not give a cold-calling banker the time of day would end up talking to their customer at great length. Several eventually became our customers.

We also found out how the actual dollar value of a contest prize was not as important as the promotion's entertainment value. If you can make a customer pause, think and smile, you've accomplished plenty. And helium balloons are possibly the most effective eye magnet ever created.

We were particularly proud when we heard our bank's main office had set up a free lemonade stand in their drive-up windows on a hot afternoon. Customers were tickled. The local newspaper even came out and took a picture that was printed on their front page the next day.

I later found out that the main office tellers thought it would be fun if they could do some "crazy" things like they heard the in-store branch was doing.

By the end of the year our branch had met our account and deposit goals three times over. And the bank's traditional branches began regularly borrowing many of our nontraditional marketing ideas.

I do not mean to suggest guerrilla marketing could or should replace our traditional marketing venues. But it can be a great complement. In today's anxious business environment, many of our folks welcome the opportunity to get more engaged in the battle to protect and expand customer relationships.

In challenging times, our more dedicated employees like to feel that they are truly in the game and not mere spectators. And when our teams are encouraged and empowered to outthink and outhustle the competition, they often will do just that.

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