Banks do battle with stagecoaches and airships

Wells Fargo is breaking out stagecoaches. SunTrust Banks is floating blimps.

As competition for customers gets more cutthroat, some of metro Atlanta’s biggest financial players are waging an old-school marketing war. It's all about grabbing attention, preserving market share and growing client bases.

In a bank branding battle metro Atlanta hasn’t seen in some time, Wells Fargo and SunTrust are lobbing the most visible salvos.

San Francisco-based Wells Fargo entered metro Atlanta when it bought the city’s No. 2 bank, Wachovia, in 2008.

Since then, Wells Fargo has launched a barrage of ads touting its community commitment and last month changed the signs on about 200 metro area branches and its signature Atlantic Station tower overlooking the Downtown Connector.

Atlanta-based SunTrust, the market leader by deposits, is trying to retain existing clients and woo disaffected customers from banks that have changed hands with ads touting its market strength and offerings. And then there are those zeppelins flying high above special events like Ovo, Cirque du Soleil’s performance at Atlantic Station. (It just happens to be adjacent to the Wells Fargo building.)

“We’ve been pretty aggressive on the marketing side in Atlanta,” SunTrust President William Rogers Jr. told analysts Oct. 21, during the company’s third quarter earnings call. Describing Atlanta as the lender’s “home turf,” Rogers, also named the bank's chief operating officer Tuesday, said SunTrust “[has] been and will be highly protective of our franchise.”

SunTrust reported marketing and customer development expenses increased 18 percent in third quarter. The bank has a 1,670-branch footprint across the Sun Belt, where it often competes head-to-head with Wells Fargo/Wachovia.

The message from both banks -- from Wells Fargo’s more than century old stagecoach to SunTrust’s “Live Solid. Bank Solid.” slogan -- is stability.

The financial industry's reputation  took a beating in the wake of the economic crisis. Many banks are still grappling with problems in their loan books and the industry has been roiled recently by allegations of improper foreclosure practices.

“When the environment changes, that creates opportunity for some,”  said Ken Bernhardt, marketing professor at Georgia State University. “Wells Fargo has to pull out all the stops to make sure the embedded [Wachovia] base stays with them.”

Wells Fargo, which had little public presence in Atlanta prior to its acquisition of Wachovia, “has no choice but to invest” in promoting its brand, Bernhardt said. SunTrust, he said, is wise to try to poach customers from newly-rebranded rivals by positioning themselves as an alternative.

Bernhardt credited Wells Fargo for a relatively smooth conversion, which saw the company’s outward appearance change in one day last month.

“It’s hard and it’s expensive, but it has a high payoff of minimizing confusion,” he said.

The bank has flooded the airwaves with radio and television ads touting the change. It also has brought out its iconic stagecoaches 20 times in the past six weeks across four Southeastern states, including 10 times in Georgia.

“A brand is a promise. ‘Working together’ is our promise,” said Jerome Byers, Atlanta regional president for Wells Fargo, alluding to the company’s “Together we’ll go far” slogan. “A promise is something you have to be held accountable to. ... We have to earn that respect.”

With banks small and large in flux, financial companies are getting defensive while hoping to take advantage of the upheaval. Georgia has seen 46 banks fail in two years and many were replaced by newcomers.

SunTrust and Wells Fargo aren’t the only banks getting into the act.

J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., which bought the failed Washington Mutual, gained metro Atlanta as a new territory in the deal. The New York conglomerate has re-branded its branches, is expanding its banking center network and has been active with print and broadcast ads, as well as direct mail pieces.

Alpharetta-based Bank of North Georgia, a Synovus Financial affiliate, has redirected some of its ad spending to different channels, looking to pick up small business customers.