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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Like all financial institutions, Bank of America is still licking its wounds from the Great Recession. But a new entertainment-marketing partnership with the History Channel finds the bank turning to a rosy depiction of its past in hopes that consumers can overlook its more recent history.
It also marks one of the closer tie-ins between a marketer and non-fiction documentary content. As the presenting sponsor of History Channel's "America: The Story of Us," a 12-part miniseries premiering April 25, Bank of America is creating 12 mini-documentaries to air during commercial breaks spotlighting the role the Charlotte, N.C.-based bank has played in historical events of the last 400 years.
The bank uses those stories to springboard to its most recent past, the Great Recession of 2008-2009, when it accepted $45 billion in government bailout money while buying beleaguered brokerage Merrill Lynch as well as mortgage company Countrywide Financial.
It's a troubled period the bank is slowly pulling itself out of, surprising analysts last week with signs of a turnaround. First quarter net income was $3.2 billion and revenue was $32 billion -- down 11% from a year ago but still far ahead of analyst expectations.
The program runs the risk of alienating consumers affected by the banking crisis, but marketing analysts say BofA should skirt any major controversy by not being overtly political and candidly acknowledging its own role in the recent recession.
"The only times I have found efforts like this to be problematic are when there is a politically controversial narrative on a program and offended parties protest against the sponsor," said Eric Dezenhall, CEO and co-founder of Dezenhall Resources.
Bank of America has become a big marketer in terms of spending, buying $464.2 million worth of measured media in 2009, according to Kantar Media. The History Channel deal also has a significant internal component, promoting the series in more than 1,000 Bank of America centers, reaching more than 59 million customers and 282,000 BofA associates. Equally substantial is a big educational partnership with History, the network's largest-ever, that will offer free DVDs of the entire 12-part series to every school in America and accredited colleges -- with Bank of America's branding messages intact.
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The bank has sponsored nonfiction content before, most notably a series of town-hall meetings regarding the financial crisis that aired on CNN in 2009, but rarely in such a large, controlled marketing environment.
"There may be a group of people saying, 'You gotta be kidding me' because of the bank's reputation in the financial crisis, but I don't think that'll be heard very loudly," said Mary Beth Sullivan, a managing partner at Capital Performance Group who advises financial services companies on marketing strategies. "They're taking the Tiger Woods approach and this is the Masters part of their strategy, where they can control the delivery of that message but still allow for some feedback."
History is also at risk of being associated so closely with a marketer for non-fiction content -- and arguably its most high-profile program in years. Chris Moseley, History's exec VP-marketing, said the network was looking for an advertising partner with a backstory as rich and detailed as the miniseries itself.
"When you look at the archives, so many things would not have happened without their funding," Ms. Moseley said, pointing to the vignette series' segments on the bank's expansion of Ellis Island in 1814, the rebuilding of Chicago after the great fire of 1871 and its financing of early Hollywood epics from Louis B. Mayer and Cecil B. DeMille as examples. "We're so excited to be able to tell their story in a fresh way that's based on facts and very credible. We want to be as accurate as possible to protect the History brand."
The program is also a critical opportunity for History to re-establish itself as a network committed to telling true historical stories. In recent years it's moved toward more contemporary storytelling with popular reality series such as "Ax Men," "Ice Road Truckers" and "Pawn Stars" that have nonetheless yielded some of the highest ratings in the network's history.
Bank of America's media agency, Publicis' Starcom USA, helped engineer the History deal and has also paired Bank of America with other non-fiction entertainment opportunities such as the CNN town halls and a series of PBS documentaries from filmmaker Ken Burns. Kristine Lutz, the agency's senior VP-activation director, said the goal is to align the bank with contextual news content.
"We're looking for unique opportunities where you can't fit any other brand into it -- not an 'insert logo here,'" she said.
Meredith Verdone, Bank of America's senior VP- brand, advertising and research, meanwhile, said "America" will deliver a relevant message to consumers that won't come off as overtly promotional. It's "one of many things we'll continue to do to communicate trust and the role Bank of America is playing in those events in our marketing efforts throughout the year."