Washington Mutual Inc. is introducing itself to California.

The Seattle-based thrift on Sunday will introduce a marketing campaign consisting of newspaper, television, radio, and billboard advertisements. The ads will capitalize on the "almost evangelical zeal" of Washington Mutual customers, said J. Bradley Davis, senior vice president of marketing.

"Our research tells us that nine out of 10 customers would recommend us to a friend," Mr. Davis said in an interview. "I remember someone at our ad agency saying, 'Geez, you're a bank with a fan club,' and so we came up with the tag line, 'Let us make a fan out of you.'"

The campaign, created by McCann-Erickson Seattle, kicks off with two- page newspaper ads in cities with former branches of American Savings and Great Western Financial Corp., two thrifts recently bought by Wamu. Then on Monday a handful of new television commercials will air in these markets.

The campaign uses Washington Mutual's typical tongue-in-cheek, self- effacing tone. One television commercial, "Teller Tours," depicts a busload of tourists being shown the homes of various Washington Mutual tellers. The tourists swoon when they spot a teller mowing his front lawn.

"He looked at me, I swear he did," says one starry-eyed female passenger.

"Well, my life is complete," adds an elderly man, dabbing a tear from his eye.

"Let Washington Mutual make a fan out of you," says the voice-over. "Join the club."

In a second spot, a group of customers form a ragtag cheerleading ensemble to praise Washington Mutual's free checking product. In another, two boys fawn over Washington Mutual teller trading cards.

"Check out this '98 Scott Musnansky," says a card shop owner. "Closed 16 home loans in one day."

Observers said the commercials' focus on branch personnel will help differentiate Washington Mutual from its major California competitors, BankAmerica Corp. and Wells Fargo & Co. Both have mergers pending: BankAmerica with NationsBank Corp. and Wells Fargo with Norwest Corp.

"This ad campaign is playing up the personal service provided at the branch contact point, which is a bit different from Wells and BofA, who have focused on the automated and high-tech approach," said Joseph K. Morford, an analyst with Van Kasper & Co. in San Francisco.

Wamu's campaign will be spread over six states, but California is a major focal point. With the pending acquisition of H.F. Ahmanson & Co., Wamu would be doubling its branches in the state, to about 700, and would be among the top three in market share in all metropolitan areas.

Kerry K. Killinger, Washington Mutual's chief executive officer, has spent the last several weeks meeting with community and civic leaders throughout the state. On Wednesday he had breakfast with San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown.

Washington Mutual's "warm and fuzzy" ads emphasizing personalized service and trust have been quite successful in the Pacific Northwest. For example, the Seattle thrift did well with the Rodeo Grandmas, a quartet of elderly cowgirls first featured in commercials aired in 1985. The steer- roping, lasso-twirling women became an ad-campaign centerpiece last year and helped bump up consumers' awareness of the Washington Mutual brand.

"This has been successful because we have matched up the message to exactly what the culture is at Washington Mutual," said Jim Walker, executive vice president and managing/creative director at McCann-Erickson.

Though observers said the competitive atmosphere will be tougher in California, they predicted similar success. A potential hurdle is the thrift's name, associated with its home state. When Wells Fargo completes its merger with Norwest, the Norwest name will be dropped partly because Wells' presence in the Southwest, among other places, is seen as an advantage.

"The Washington Mutual name may be an issue initially. It will raise people's eyebrows," said James R. Bradshaw, an analyst with Pacific Crest Securities, Portland, Ore.

However, Californians have seen so many bank and thrift names come and go in recent years that they may no longer be put off by a lack of local flavor, Mr. Bradshaw added.

"The people Wamu is singing to are well versed in change," he said. "They have learned that the name does not guarantee performance."

Mr. Davis, who declined to disclose the cost of the campaign, said, "Our research told us that it doesn't matter what name is on the door, as long as you provide outstanding customer service."

And though Wamu will face some stiff competition from BankAmerica and Wells Fargo, both of them have faced problems with customer satisfaction.

"The customer base here has been banking with BankAmerica and Wells for years, but they have also been disappointed with service," Mr. Morford said.

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