What Does Bank of America Want From Its New Agency? A Silver Bullet

Briefing Document Circulated as Part of Pitch Shows Marketer's Eagerness to Find a New Direction -- and Fast

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Two months from now, senior executives at Bank of America will prepare to select a new strategic positioning for the bank, one they desperately hope will burnish the company's tarnished image. But marketing experts say that unless its agencies come up with a silver-bullet strategy -- one that feels humble, honest and wholly unique for the financial-services industry -- the exercise could prove fruitless.

A briefing document circulated to agencies last month stated that BofA needs a strategic positioning that can serve as a "North Star" for all business and marketing decisions and convey that the bank is in the midst of a transformation.

Among the larger problems faced by all big consumer banks, Bank of America suffered a black eye over its attempt to levy ATM card surcharges to customers, and, in recent times, slipped from its longtime perch as the nation's largest bank to the No. 2 spot behind, JP Morgan Chase. Although the company's stock is beginning to recover after tanking to below $5 a share, it is still a long road ahead.

But the company feels it has come through the economic downturn stronger by shedding noncore assets, and wants consumers to know it via a campaign that creates buzz. The bank also desires a deeper sense of purpose, one that can withstand any potential dings to brand reputation.

CMO Anne Finucane
CMO Anne Finucane

BofA doesn't seem sure of exactly what it wants, but it's eager to find a new marketing direction fast.

The bank's agencies -- which include WPP's The Brand Union, Omnicom Group's BBDO and Interpublic Group of Cos.' Weber Shandwick and Hill Holliday, among others -- were alerted to the review in mid-January, and a slew of meetings have taken place in the past two weeks. Final presentations are set to be delivered in early April; that same month, BofA execs plan to commit to a new marketing direction.

According to Ad Age 's DataCenter, BofA is the 17th-largest marketer in the country with $1.55 billion in ad spending in the U.S. The company's rethink comes amid widespread mistrust of large financial organizations that manifested in the Occupy Wall Street movement.

One likely outcome of the review process will be BofA shedding its current "Bank of Opportunity" slogan, which was developed by BBDO. The tag was adopted a few years ago to replace the prior "Higher Standards" campaign, but it lost resonance amid a recession that tightened consumers' purse strings and crippled many small businesses across America.

"'Bank of Opportunity' doesn't work,'" said Tom Dougherty, CEO of Greensboro, N.C.-based branding company Stealing Share. What does it mean? It's a throwaway term."

Mr. Dougherty said the marketer has an opportunity to elevate its communications above its competitors. "The banking category is so bad that there is opportunity to rise. [Banks] want you to choose them because of convenient locations and ATMs and fair fees, and they have not come up with a reason to be," he said.

There's no doubt the new marketing strategy is of concern at the highest ranks within the company, as evidenced by the execs who'll be present in final meetings with agencies this spring.

Ad Age has learned that the group includes Claire Huang, who runs marketing globally Bank of America institutional business; Co-chief Operating Officers Tom Montag and David Darnell; Jim Mahoney, director of public policy; CMO Anne Finucane and the bank's top boss, CEO Brian Moynihan.

A colorful profile of Ms. Finucane by The New York Times last month painted the 17-year vet of the company as a hobnobber among the Boston elite and a confidante of the CEO, whom he trusts for her "blunt" and "brutal" manner.

It seems Ms. Finuccane will be the last one to take any mercy on the new marketing strategy that agencies pitch. She'll also have to ensure that the new strategy funnels down to internal communications and has an impact on all the actions the bank takes going forward, in order to prevent a move that is interpreted as solely a cosmetic fix that could do even more damage to the brand.

"They need to have realistic expectations about the rule that the marketing can play in changing public sentiment," said Jeff Stephens, CEO at Creative Brand Communications, a branding consultancy that focuses on banks and credit unions. After repairing ill will, he said, "the next challenge is getting people to give a damn about their brand because it's such a commodity."

And talk is cheap. "Getting additional help from agencies might catalyze some ideas, but at the end of the day, any real progress is going to be made by showing the world what they're trying to do rather than through words and pictures," he said. "One thing bankers almost never do in my experience is look at other industries and say, 'What can we learn?' One of the best things the agencies could do is help them to open up their perspective."

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