Programs and products aimed at the gay and lesbian community have become an almost routine aspect of corporate marketing-but not so much among banks.

A reluctance remains, particularly among smaller financial institutions, to be publicly associated with homosexuality.

While larger companies such as Chase Manhattan Corp. and American Express Co. are placing ads in major gay publications, most community banks are shunning such attention.

Four years after it first made waves by catering to gays and lesbians, and despite the success that resulted, Wainwright Bank and Trust Co. of Boston remains a rarity among community banks.

The marketing consultant Kevin Tynan said there is still a perception that marketing to gays will jeopardize existing account relationships-a prospect that risk-averse bankers do not relish.

"We see that not just among gender issues," said the president of Tynan Marketing, Chicago. "A lot of banks don't want to or hesitate to market to Hispanics because they are afraid of offending the general population."

Wainwright Bank and Trust embarked on a prickly path at a time when the profit potential of the gay and lesbian population was still a mystery to most companies.

In 1993, Brenda Cole, a lesbian, joined Wainwright's board of directors, and the $300 million-asset bank set out to welcome gays and lesbians as employees and customers.

"It's really not a marketing campaign-it's more of a philosophy," said Steven F. Young, senior vice president of retail banking.

He said the bank tried to make gay and lesbian couples feel comfortable opening joint accounts or using the bank for estate or retirement planning.

"When a gay or lesbian couple comes to open an account (at other banks), they're often asked, 'Are you cousins?'" Mr. Young said. "There was a general perception they were being judged."

The bank has issued its credit card, which contributes 1% of spending to various social causes, to 1,400 people since its 1995 inception.

Peter Erbland, communications manager of AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts, said donations from the card have become a good source of funding for his advocacy group. He added that Wainwright has been especially helpful in financing housing for people with AIDS.

He said the group applauds Wainwright's contributions and its efforts to serve gays and lesbians.

"To have someone actually marketing and targeting (the gay community) and saying 'We want your business' is very empowering," Mr. Erbland said.

Wainwright attributed a fourfold increase in deposits-from $30 million to $120 million between 1992 and 1995-in part to its efforts to make homosexuals welcome.

Deposits have been flat since 1995 because the bank shifted away from marketing CDs, Mr. Young said.

"They're obviously doing a good job of catering to the gay clientele," Mr. Tynan said. "I think other banks would be advised to consider reaching similar markets."

"If no one is doing it, you have parity," said Dave Mulryan, partner at Mulryan/Nash Advertising, a New York agency that helps large companies target the gay market. "The minute someone starts doing it, the other financial institutions are put into an uncomfortable position."

Gregg Onofrio, president of Christopher Street Financial in New York, a brokerage firm that markets to gays and lesbians, said the profit motive has effectively forced savvy marketing strategists to target the gay population.

"There's so much gay direct marketing, there's a certain amount of opportunism there," said Mr. Onofrio. "In a sense, it's fine. It's opening up the playing field."

Jeffrey Vitale, president of Overlooked Opinions, a Chicago market research firm, said many small banks in gay neighborhoods have taken steps to accommodate local residents.

"It's more like the local retailer approach," Mr. Vitale said.

"We're right in the heart of the gay community in Chicago," said David Rosenberg, vice president of marketing for North Community Bank. "If it's important to the gay and lesbian community, then it's important to us."

The $150 million-asset North Community, in the city's Lincoln Park and Lakeview neighborhoods, is active in the annual gay and lesbian festivals and often underwrites the events, Mr. Rosenberg said.

But most banks don't extend their market-segmentation strategies to gays and lesbians, even in urban areas with large gay populations.

"Our bank just targets human beings regardless of sexual preference," said Bruce W. Leppla, president and chief executive officer of Redwood Bank, a $130 million-asset bank in San Francisco.

C. Jack Bean, chairman of Surety Capital Corp., Hurst, Tex., said he doesn't know what kinds of banking services he could offer gays and lesbians that are different from those for heterosexuals. He compared it to marketing to left-handed people.

"I think it's silly," Mr. Bean said, but added, "There's nothing wrong with it. They can all come bank with me. I'd shake hands with them and hug them."

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