The advertising director of Sovran Financial Corp. sat in the Little Tavern hamburger shop in Georgetown last month, watching as rows of beef patties were grilled, stuffed into buns and sold by the bagful.
The executive, Dave Luck, was in town helping a camera crew capture local scenes for ads trumpeting Virginia-based Sovran's jump into interstate banking through its purchase of banks in Maryland and the District.
A venerated fast-food joint was a fitting setting to film, Sovran officials readily admitted. "Hamburgers, panty hose, bank services -- they are commodity products, and marketing them is very much alike," said Constance Wilsterman of Lawler Ballard Advertising in Norfolk, the firm that created Sovran's ad campaign.
Sovran, the area's largest bank-holding company and the first to complete mergers in Maryland and the District under new interstate banking laws, is selling financial services much as the Little Tavern or McDonald's or Wendy's sells fast food: "Our job is to create an image," Wilsterman said, "to give products personality."
Sovran's $3 million media blitz, which started four weeks ago and kicked into high gear last Monday, uses local landmarks as well as symbols such as soldiers piling out of a Trojan horse or George Washington crossing the Delaware to convey convenience, strength and an ability to move quickly.
Within the next 18 months, Virginia's second-, third- and fourth-largest bank-holding companies plan to follow Sovran and bombard area residents with similar ad campaigns. United Virginia Banks of Richmond, Bank of Virginia of Richmond and Dominion Bankshares of Roanoke all are buying banks in the District and Maryland, and, like Sovran, plan to use advertising to glue the pieces together in the public's mind.
First American Bank, based in the District, blazed the trail for the new campaign of multistate bank marketing several years ago, when the names of more than a dozen small banks were changed to First American. The banks had been linked into a chain decades earlier -- before there were legal restrictions on interstate banking -- but only when new owners took over were they given a common name and a joint marketing campaign.
However, compared with their competitors in the District and Maryland, Sovran and the other Virginia banks are strides ahead in the interstate banking race.
The top four Virginia banks have moved faster than their Maryland and District competitors to cross the invisible lines separating what bankers consider the indivisible market of Northern Virginia, Southern Maryland and the District.
James Madison Ltd. is the only D.C. bank-holding company that has mergers pending in both Virginia and Maryland under the new laws. No Maryland banks have made purchases in the District or Virginia, although some have been bought out in the interstate consolidation.
New local laws permitting out-of-state banks to cross borders through acquisitions still require bank-holding companies to operate banks within each jurisdiction as independent businesses. From a marketing point of view, however, marketers say the separately incorporated banks will look like a cohesive company.
Technology Brings Change
Pioneered in the 1970s by Citicorp and fostered by electronic technology, mass marketing of financial services has helped blur barriers between banks and other businesses.
"Bankers now finally realize that they are in the retailing business," said Glenn Monigle, a Denver-based marketing consultant. In the last few years, he has helped Sovran and Dominion Bankshares plot interstate marketing strategies.
This fall, Dominion -- the fourth-largest banking company in Virginia -- is expected to complete its interstate acquisitions and begin advertising the merits of interstate banking. United Virginia, the second-largest, and Bank of Virginia, ranked third in size, say they expect to follow early next year.
Like Sovran and First American, the three banks will unite their operations under one name freed of state or regional identification.
The combination of First and Merchants and Virginia National banks into Sovran, the transformation of Clarendon Bank into First American for interstate marketing purposes and the changing of the name of the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society to Meritor when it moved into Washington are evidence that bankers no longer serve markets defined by geography.
Soon, bankers say, the geographic differences will be no more significant than distinctions between the services banks offer.
"A checking account is a checking account," said United Virginia Vice Chairman Samuel P. Cardwell. "Products are all fungible. Convenience, service and pricing are not."
Marketers say that perceived differences among similar products are fostered through packaging, advertising and convenience. Although consumers are unlikely to give a lumpy potato mix or sour orange juice a second try, they might pick and continue using a good product largely because they like its image and find it easy to get.
Industry analysts and executives say financial services are no different. Bankers contend most consumers still pick a bank much as they do a fast-food restaurant. Potential customers are likely to walk into the first one they see, as long as they think an institution is safe. If two branches operate side-by-side, advertising likely will guide the choice.
The hassle of switching banks makes consumers reluctant to move their accounts, regardless of mistakes and bad service.
"If you can get the customer's checking account, you've got that customer, unless you beat them up," said Frederick Deane Jr., chairman and chief executive of Bank of Virginia.
Bank of Virginia plans to change its name to Signet and hopes by midsummer to have regulators' approval of its acquisitions in the District and Maryland. Early next year it will start an ad campaign.
Sovran and Dominion gained a lead over local rivals by settling on names and corporate logos at least two years ago in anticipation of interstate banking.
United Virginia appears to be running last of the top four Virginia banks. It says it will pick a new name, but will not have its new identity or marketing scheme in place before the summer of 1987.
Whether being first or last will make any difference is unknown.
"Sovran has the jump on us because they've gone through the name change," said James M. Wells III, executive vice president of United Virginia. "We're at an advertising disadvantage right now in the District, no question about it. But over time, convenience of customer service is more important than media hype. But that's not to say we wouldn't have a campaign going if we had the name."
Customers Rarely Switch
Richard Stillinger of Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, a New York securities firm specializing in banking, agreed. "To be first in a market is certainly better than not being first, but that doesn't mean Sovran will carry the day. People don't change banks easily. Even a concentrated ad campaign won't find it easy to woo customers."
Industry analysts and executives say that if Sovran's three competitors begin their marketing campaigns within 18 months as planned, Sovran will gain only a modest plus by being first. More important for selling products that can't be touched, smelled, seen or tasted will be long-term marketing efforts that create strong images and distinguish a bank from its competitors.
Sovran's ads are intended in part to reassure existing customers of its new subsidiaries, Suburban Bank of Bethesda and D.C. National, that service will not be interrupted, and to explain why it will be worth the temporary inconvenience of having to get new checks and other materials. Lawler Ballard's goal is to raise awareness in the metro area of Sovran's name to 70 percent, from its current 40 percent.
Sovran's competitors from Virginia are unlikely to spend as much as Sovran has for its campaign, and say they expect to increase the efficiency of their marketing when they begin interstate operations. When banks operate only in Virginia, they are cut off from two-thirds of their market and unable to do business with a majority of the potential customers reached by their advertising in Washington newspapers, magazines and broadcast media.
Mergers Bring Problems
Along with redoing their marketing, the new interstate banks must concentrate on postmerger problems, such as combining the new banks in ways that do not discard talent or bleed morale and achieving consistency between branches without sacrificing local autonomy.
"In a very real sense we're in McDonald's business," said W. Kelly Scott, Sovran's corporate executive officer in charge of marketing. "We have to project a unified image and offer consistent products no matter what office our customers walk into."
Joked Sovran Chairman C. A. Cutchins III, "We do hope we offer a larger selection than just hamburger."
Just as a fast-food operator hopes to sell french fries, soft drinks and dessert with every hamburger it sells, banks like Sovran are pursuing "relationship banking," pushing IRAs, credit cards and car loans to checking-account customers.
At Sovran, the traditional tellers will be renamed "customer service representatives" and will get new duties, including telling customers who come to the counter to cash a check about the other available services.
Money Is Good Incentive
Like other retail sales forces, these "representatives" are increasingly encouraged with bonus programs. "Money is the best incentive I know," said Cutchins.
According to a recent report by the management consulting firm of McKinsey & Co. for the Bank Administration Institute, a think tank financed by the industry, "Senior executives who have managed successful acquisitions and mergers say that 80 percent of the value is created during the postacquisition period."
"The winners and losers in banking will emerge during the next several years of consolidation," the study said. "Merger and acquisition sequences are like chess games -- the best players plan several moves ahead."
UVB officials say that is why the cover of their 1985 annual report pictures a chess game in progress. Sovran has picked bloodier images, such as William the Conqueror invading England and soldiers charging into battle in the Crimean War.
Mike Knaisch of Lawler Ballard said that the intent is to appeal to affluent achievers, who by sheer numbers dominate the metro D.C. market.
He said that this group of people "appreciate s the ideas of leadership and power."
The ads try to convince consumers that interstate banking is "a breakthrough in convenience," Knaisch said. They also attempt to convince executives that interstate banking merely extends the reach of Sovran, whose account managers already have ample authority to act quickly on loans and other business requests.
Although launching the first media campaign does not ensure Sovran of getting the greatest market share in the long run, it is sure to boost the institution's market value now.
"It puts Sovran in a good position as far as name recognition goes, and that increases the potential to be acquired at a good price," said marketing consultant Monigle.
Sovran insists it prefers to remain independent, but rules nothing out. "We've taken the position of being an acquirer," said Sovran's Cutchins.
"But we work for the stockholders, and if a deal comes along, we'd have to look at it from the shareholders' viewpoint," he said.