Washington Mutual Inc.'s Rodeo Grandmas will not be riding into California.

The four elderly cowgirls of the Seattle thrift company's hugely successful advertisements in the Pacific Northwest will be absent from a campaign in the works for the Golden State.

But a folksy, humorous image will remain at the center of Wamu's marketing. The new ad blitz is being planned in the wake of last week's announcement that Washington Mutual will acquire Irwindale, Calif.-based H.F. Ahmanson & Co.

The California campaign, which is being produced by the McCann-Erickson advertising firm's Seattle office, is to go on the air, up on billboards, and appear in newspapers in the next three to four months, said Wamu senior vice president of corporate marketing J. Bradley Davis.

"With our brand personality, we really want to show California the sense of humor we have about ourselves and capitalize on the fact that our customers think of us as casual, comfortable, and caring," Mr. Davis said."We are not shouting at the consumer from the 27th floor down to the street; we're down there with them."

Achieving a high level of brand awareness in California will be crucial to fulfilling Wamu chief executive officer Kerry K. Killinger's goal of becoming a market leader. After the merger with Ahmanson, the parent of Home Savings of America, the Seattle thrift company would have roughly $150 billion of assets and be second in California market share only to BankAmerica.

"Establishing a successful brand will translate into fast customer acquisition and high retention rates," said Kenneth A. Posner, an analyst at Morgan Stanley, Dean Witter in New York.

Details of the upcoming campaign are being kept under wraps, and Mr. Davis declined to reveal its cost. He said that the ads will revolve around a central character and will not make reference to Washington Mutual's biggest competitors in California, Wells Fargo & Co. and BankAmerica Corp.

An executive from BankAmerica was not available to comment on Wamu's campaign. But Leslie Altick, a spokeswoman for Wells Fargo, said Washington Mutual's introductory radio ads indicate "that they are taking the high- road approach."

However, observers said the feel of Washington Mutual's advertisements often stands out against the typically stodgy commercials of many big banks. The thrift is taking a risk with its off-beat, down-home branding, but observers said it has paid off by differentiating Wamu from its rivals.

"They've identified some key factors that are very important to consumers, such as service and trust, and incorporated them into potentially very effective advertising," Mr. Posner said.

For example, Washington Mutual scored a big hit with the Rodeo Grandmas, a quartet of steer-roping and lasso-twirling women first featured in a series of commercials that aired in 1985. Soon after Mr. Davis joined the thrift in 1996 from a marketing job at Minneapolis retailer Dayton Hudson Corp., he decided to make the women an ad campaign centerpiece.

The move paid off handsomely. A commercial run in Washington State that featured the Rodeo Grandmas stopping a stage coach driven by two Californians-an implicit reference to Wells Fargo-raised consumers' awareness of the Washington Mutual brand from 20% to 26% after several weeks. By May 1997, Wamu brand awareness had reached 50%.

Meanwhile, the Rodeo Grandmas achieved star status, appearing on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show," "Entertainment Tonight," and "Prime Time Live." Their photo even graced the cover of their hometown telephone directory in Ellensburg, Wash.

But Libby Hutchinson, a Washington Mutual vice president and manager of public relations, said that the Grandmas would not be appropriate icons for the new California campaign, which the company would like to focus on its brand.

The campaign will not be the thrift's first in the Golden State.

After acquiring Stockton, Calif.-based American Savings Bank in 1996 and Great Western Financial Corp. of Chatsworth, Calif., last year, Washington Mutual mounted a campaign titled "Do the Math." It claimed that Wamu subsidiaries charged lower fees than their California competitors. u

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