Just as Home Depot has made life miserable for local hardware stores from coast to coast, Countrywide Credit Industries Inc. wants to take market share from lenders across the country.
The Calabasas, Calif.-based company is spending $40 million annually to make a name for itself, including $20 million in media advertising. As a first step, it has begun to sponsor a televised seniors golfing tournament, the Tradition.
Countrywide is not alone in the mortgage business in trying to develop a brand image. Fleet Mortgage Group, for example, has decided to focus on creating a regional identity. And Fannie Mae, which does not sell to consumers, is nevertheless campaigning to demystify its role in financing homes.
Whether an investment as large as Countrywide's can pay off is not clear, in the view of several lenders. Creating a national brand identity in the mortgage business may be particularly tough, because prospective customers go many years between thoughts about a loan.
But Countrywide executives believe survival depends on having an identity that differentiates it from other lenders, said Andy Bielanski, managing director for marketing.
"You don't do an event like the Tradition and try to determine a month later whether it was successful," he said. "We're in year two of what will probably be a 10-year adventure."
Countrywide has grown rapidly, largely by cultivating conventional referral sources, notably real estate brokers. Increasingly savvy consumers, however, are taking a bigger role in finding their own lenders, making it important to Countrywide that consumers know it independently, Mr. Bielanski said.
That's where national radio and cable TV advertising and sponsorship of major events come in. Mr. Bielanski said that when consumers finally are looking for a mortgage and prepare a short list of lenders, Countrywide wants to be on that list.
The challenge in branding is more than just creating awareness, said Larry Chiagouris, managing director of CDB Research and Consulting, a mortgage marketing consulting firm in New York.
"The process is to make people aware that you exist," Mr. Chiagouris said. "Then make them aware of what you stand for. Then make them a customer."
Countrywide is further along in developing national brand awareness than any other mortgage lender, he said, but still needs to hone its message.
A marketing executive struggled in an interview to say what Countrywide stands for in nearly as succinct terms as he used for some of the few branding success stories in financial services. Visa is known for availability, said David R. Doyle, Countrywide first vice president for consumer marketing, just as American Express is known for membership and Charles Schwab is known for low-cost transaction accounts.
He said Countrywide stands for "the absolute best value in home loans with a process that is very easy."
The first step in creating a brand identity is an introspective look at one's business, said Mr. Chiagouris, whose CDB Research is developing a national data base to benchmark how strongly consumers identify with the major names in mortgage lending.
By asking themselves what they do well today and what they are capable of doing well tomorrow, many mortgage executives will conclude that their best bet is to work toward regional brand identity.
"Not everyone has to play on a national stage," Mr. Chiagouris said.
Fleet Mortgage Group in Columbia, S.C., a unit of Fleet Financial Group in Boston, is taking a different approach. It decided last year to retreat from the national stage and consolidate in the Northeast.
Where Fleet Banks dot the landscape-in New England, New York, and New Jersey-Fleet at least has good name recognition, said Nancy Boles, senior vice president for sales and marketing in Fleet Mortgage's consumer direct business. But making itself known around the rest of the country was a struggle. So Fleet Mortgage sold three dozen retail offices last year in states without Fleet Bank offices.
Creating strong brand identity is more important than ever, Ms. Boles said, because most large real estate firms now have captive mortgage companies. Rather than a rich source of referrals, real estate brokers increasingly are competitors.
But if Fleet Mortgage creates an effective brand identity, that identity will be in Fleet Bank's backyard and it will come in part by hitching the mortgage company more closely to the bank and other units of Fleet Financial.
As an example, Ms. Boles said collateral material is being redesigned to resemble other Fleet material more closely.
"Most of our customers come into us completely independently of the bank," she said, but they know and trust the Fleet name because of the bank.
In contrast to Countrywide's gargantuan marketing budget, Fleet Mortgage will spend $3.5 million this year to support its retail, wholesale, and correspondent businesses, which did $22 billion in originations last year.
The increasing need for brand identification may actually return an advantage to smaller institutions that are known in their own communities, Ms. Boles said.
Few lenders are likely to try to match Countrywide's effort in creating a national brand identity, she said, because it is so expensive.
"I believe that if anyone can pull this off, (Countrywide) can," she said. "But I don't have 100% confidence."
And the effort may not be worth it, at least according to one competitor.
Customers are interested in rates, closing costs, and convenience, said Douglas A. Smith, senior vice president for marketing mortgages with Barnett Bank in Jacksonville, Fla.
"Very rarely does name recognition come in," he said, noting that more than half the mortgage volume nationally is brought in through small, independent brokers. Still, he said, Countrywide deserves credit for picking a strategy-selling directly to consumers-and focusing intently on it, while most other big lenders are more scattershot.
The Federal National Mortgage Association formally adopted its longtime nickname, Fannie Mae, as its business name last September. It introduced a new logo last year, depicting a house, to make clear the company's association with homeownership. And it recapitalized the Fannie Mae Foundation with $350 million in Fannie Mae stock, boosting the nonprofit fund's ability to disseminate consumer education information that will reflect well on the parent company.
Clearer identification of Fannie Mae won't boost revenue or profitability, but it may head off troublesome misrepresentations of the company's business and powers, said John Buckley, senior vice president for communications.
"The history of large institutions in America dictates that one be as unmysterious as possible," Mr. Buckley said. "As the largest financial institution in the country and the largest corporation in terms of assets, it's critical that people have an understanding of the services we provide and the work that we do."