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Un-Sexy Money 

by DANIEL WALTERS & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & N & lt;/span & ot long ago, banks bragged about their slick deals, their "no money down" loans, and their too-good-to-be-true interest rates. One mortgage lender, HCL Finance, even boasted about its "NINJA" loan -- where customers needed No Income, No Job and No Assets.





The Ninja days are over, however. Now it's cool to be dull. A Sterling Savings Bank ad boasts about its "Really Boring Money Market" and its "Really Boring 13-Month CD."





"Now more than ever, you need a bank that's responsible. Practical," the Sterling ad reads. "So safe, it's almost boring ..."





At the Spokesman-Review, the news section has been awash in banking ads dominated by five S-words: safe, strong, stable, secure and solid. Bank advertising has surged during the last few weeks, says account executive Craig Heasley.





Most ads serve a dual purpose: To attract customers from other institutions -- the ones worried their personal bank has become a sinking ship -- and to assure their current customers that their ship has never been more seaworthy. Half the strategy is education, assuring people their deposits are safe. The other half is separation.





Credit unions want to separate themselves from conventional banks, conventional local banks want to separate themselves from national banks and merged national banks -- like Washington Mutual -- want to separate themselves from their formerly troubled selves.





"A lot has changed over the past 106 years," a Washington Trust ad reads. "Except the ownership of our bank." Not like some banks, the ad implies.





"The sky is not falling," an advertisement from Spokane's credit unions says. "With all that's happened on Wall Street in recent days, it's natural to be concerned about your money. Fortunately, you don't have to worry about the health of Spokane's credit unions."





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & ince credit unions operate outside the stock market, they are resistant to the whims of economic winds, Spokane Teachers Credit Union president Steve Dahlstrom says.





"We're not a Wall Street company. We don't even have a stock price," Dahlstrom says. "Our credit union was started in 1934, right in the middle of the Depression. I think you see the difference."





While a lousy economy, job losses and falling stock prices can harm a credit union by increasing loan defaults and decreasing member deposits, it does so only indirectly.





Realtor Jean Stewart says she switched from her old bank -- a massive mega-bank that just underwent a merger -- to STCU because of the credit union's small size, nonprofit status and record of sound investments. "They haven't changed ownership in the last six weeks," Stewart says.





Stewart's not alone. STCU's rate of new members has increased in the last month. "We've been averaging over a thousand new members a month," Dahlstrom says. "Some people are looking for an alternative. We're seeing members come to us because they want to diversify. We're seeing an influx because of both of those things."





Inland Northwest Bank had been working on a marketing campaign to promote a new deposit program, but when the economy tanked, they scrapped it for one stressing security, says Randy Fewell, INB's president and CEO.





The new ads -- scheduled to run for 8 to 12 weeks in area papers -- portray INB as both "safe" and "local." One reads "solid as" followed by an image of a rock. Below that, INB brags about their "no-thrills, no-thrills" record, their high FDIC capital adequacy rating, their lack of subprime loans and their local pedigree.





"Instead of promoting a particular product ... we wanted to promote the strength and stability of the bank in general," Fewell says.





Doug Baynes, Banner Bank's vice president director of marketing, says they just launched a similar campaign focusing on how Banner has been chartered since 1890. "I think history raises the comfort level of strength and stability," Baynes says.





In general, Spokane's small local banks -- free from the subprime loans and mercurial housing trends common to California -- have largely dodged the economy's recent haymakers.





"For the local banks, this is actually a really good time to get their name out there, because consumers are looking for a safer place to keep their money," says Anni Millard, the Ascentium advertising account manager for INB. "They tend to want to keep their money local right now."





With proximity comes comfort, Millard says. Customers know they can walk in and shake the hand of the bank's CEO. Bob Marshall, who owns a mechanical and electrical repair service, says he's not worried about the shaky economy and trusts INB with his money. "[I like] the fact that they're not on the list of failed banks," Marshall says.





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & hile small banks brag about their smallness, the mega-banks have grown even more mega. Wells Fargo swooped in to save a floundering Wachovia, Bank of America gobbled up Merrill Lynch, and Washington Mutual -- helpless against freefalling stocks and an exodus of depositors -- was seized by regulators and sold to JPMorgan Chase.





But according to those banks, that's a good thing. Bigger is better, they say. While the buyouts left stockholders holding only condolences and pocket lint, many buyouts have saved uninsured depositors from losing money.





At Washington Mutual, advertisers are leveraging the takeover to showcase a newfound sense of stability.





"We love Chase. And not just because they have a trillion dollars," one advertisement reads. "WaMu has a bright new future, thanks to the stability of JPMorgan Chase (and their nearly trillion dollars in customer deposits.)"





That excitement was less evident in April, when WaMu rejected JPMorgan's earlier attempt to buy the company.





Washington Mutual spokeswoman Darcy Donahoe-Wilmot declined to talk about how its near-collapse and buyout has affected its marketing strategy. "Our customers' fears have been put to rest on [the Washington Mutual's stability], and we don't want to bring that up again," Wilmot says.





That's true for long-time Washington Mutual customer Patricia Kremer. She wasn't ever worried about Washington Mutual's merger, mainly because her daughter works for JPMorgan. Being owned by JPMorgan will make Washington Mutual more secure, not less, Kremer says.





Bank of America also uses its size as shorthand for stability. "The size and scale of our company, our company reach, the diversity of our businesses mean that we can withstand the extreme volatility [of the economy]," marketing spokesman Joe Goode says.





Goode says Bank of America's marketing strategy this year has been nimble. In May, they introduced the "No Risk CD" -- a product with all the security of a regular certificate of deposit, but with no penalty for withdrawing early. A more recent campaign welcomes new customers to an "opportunity to bank with confidence, security, and a higher interest rate."





A soft-focus Bank of America television ad, meanwhile, compares transferring to Bank of America to waking up to a sunny day after a fitful night. "No matter how long the night has been, there's always breakfast," the warm-voiced announcer says. "This is America. The sun comes up and we get a fresh start."





Whatever their ads say, the important thing for banks right now is to advertise, Millard says. "If a bank is advertising right now, they obviously have the money to do it, so that also shows their stability."





totheeditor@inlander.com

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