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In Ads, Banks Try the Warm, Cozy Approach

Redneck Bank
Photo source: redneckbank.com
Redneck Bank

There is Ally Bank: “A better kind of bank.” And A.I.U.: “A unique franchise.” And — really — Redneck Bank: “Where bankin’s funner!”

All are new names and new slogans for old companies with big worries and, in some cases, even bigger image problems.

Ally is the lender formerly known as GMAC Bank, once part of now bankrupt General Motors . Change that “U” to a “G” in A.I.U. and you get A.I.G., the American International Group , which owns A.I.U. Redneck is the new name for the online arm of plain old Bank of the Wichitas.

First came the bailout, now comes the burnishing. Not since the Great Depression has the nation’s financial industry confronted so much bad P.R. So with cheery, the-future-is-bright advertising and, in some cases, revisionist branding, companies are trying to put their troubled pasts behind them, or at least out of the public’s mind.

The messages vary, but the overarching theme is the same: Can’t we all just move on?

“The fundamental value of financial institutions is clouded by the anger and the confusion people feel,” said Anne Finucane, the chief marketing officer at Bank of America , which quickly decided to erase Countrywide’s name after acquiring that mortgage lender. “We are an optimistic society. Individuals and companies want to move ahead. They want to get on with their lives. They want the banking industry to help them.”

Many banking executives hope the nation will take a kinder view of their industry on Tuesday, when nine big banks are expected to get the go-ahead to return billions of bailout dollars. But ordinary Americans may not forget the financial catastrophe any time soon. After the Depression, some say it took 20 years for popular anger and skepticism around the banks to dissipate.

Whatever the case now, some banks are working hard to polish their images. GMAC Bank, by dint of its name and the billions of bailout dollars that GMAC has received, smacks of Detroit and the tumble-down car industry. So in May the company rechristened its online bank Ally, as in friend.

Its new symbol is a stylized purple lower-case “a,” sort of a smiling swoosh. Its ad campaign, by BBH New York, projects a straightforward, nothing-to-hide image. “We make money with you, not off you,” one ad reads.

The financial industry is not merely courting public opinion. It is also courting Washington, where banks are trying to fend off some types of regulation. White House officials have cited the lack of public trust as a central problem for the industry. Marketing studies are finding that some banking brands have plummeted in value.

Most banks have been reluctant to apologize outright for the financial mess. Instead, many want customers and policy makers to focus on the future and, in particular, on how the industry is helping to pull the economy out of its deep recession.

In advertisements and P.R. chitchat, many banks say they are making loans and helping hard-pressed homeowners shoulder their mortgages. Critics maintain the banks are not doing nearly enough.

Bankers also contend that a Wall Street version of natural selection has already culled the industry’s worst offenders.

“Some of the people who were the most egregious players, they’re not around,” said James E. Rohr, the chief executive of PNC . “The fact that they haven’t stepped up and said they’re sorry, well, they don’t have a platform.”

PNC hopes to polish its image with the help of a new advertising agency, Deutsch, which has done work for Kodak and Ikea.

PNC hired Deutsch after the bank acquired the National City Corporation of Ohio. Other ad agencies like Leo Burnett (the minds behind McDonald’s ads) and McCann Erickson (maker of MasterCard’s “Priceless” spots) showered PNC with data on banking consumers and ideas on the financial crisis.

A report that Deutsch presented to PNC captured the angst many American are feeling about their finances. It quoted people saying: “I’m petrified,” and “There’s definitely a lot of risk in my decisions right now.”

But Val DiFebo, the president of Deutsch, said that consumers now seem to be feeling a bit better about banks. “We wouldn’t characterize it as anger anymore,” Ms. DiFebo said. “We would say that consumers are past the angry phase, and everybody’s waiting to see what the banks will do.”

It is difficult for banks to know exactly when the public mood is shifting. In January, for instance, Bank of America introduced a television spot called “Keep Moving Forward.” It featured doors opening — on a barn, an airplane cockpit, elevators and factories. The spot did little to smooth over the bank’s troubles, and its chief, Kenneth D. Lewis, remains under considerable pressure.

Washington policy makers are acutely aware of the public’s dim view of the industry. Last month, in a meeting with banking chiefs, Lawrence H. Summers, the president’s chief economics adviser, chided banking chiefs, saying they did not understand the depth of public anger. “The financial system used to be seen as a positive asset to the United States,” he told them.

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Lloyd C. Blankfein, the chief executive of Goldman Sachs , fired back.

“Well, tell us, Larry, when was that golden era?” Mr. Blankfein responded, according to three people who attended the Financial Services Forum meeting. “Was it 1954? Was it 1927?”

Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase , told Mr. Summers that the government, as much as anyone, was fueling people’s resentment.

“It’s time for you to stop vilifying all bankers and banks,” said Mr. Dimon, whose bank has posted a series of videos called “The Way Forward” on its Web site.

Industry giants like Citigroup are reviewing their public image and trying to keep a relatively low profile. Many are reluctant to be seen as spending lavishly, on ads or anything else. Citigroup and other large banks have actually reduced their ad spending, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus, and are instead trying to clean up their images in other ways, such as media relations and philanthropic efforts..

Citigroup spun out a series of public service ads called “The Citi View” in December, just after a second patch of government aid. The ads provide tips on saving money, like automatically transferring money from checking to savings accounts, or taking your lunch to work.

After buying the Countrywide Financial Group, the big mortgage company that for many symbolized the excesses of the subprime era, Bank of America quickly rebranded the lender. Last month, Bank of America released a large campaign for its mortgage business, promising straight-forward terms. “Home has a new address,” says one ad, made by BBDO, the agency behind brands like Campbell’s, FedEx and AT&T.

Steve Fraser, author of “Wall Street: America’s Dream Palace,” said the banking industry, whatever its ad message, might struggle to regain trust. That is what happened during the Depression and for years after.

“The anger turned to skepticism and a certain caution.” Mr. Fraser said. “And it lasted for decades.”