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When Stephen J. Trafton graduated from college with a biochemistry degree, nobody would have banked on him winning marketing accolades.

Still, Mr. Trafton has become one of the nation's leading bank turnaround gurus, this time saving California's Glendale Federal Bank, an institution nearly seized by regulators one year ago. His strategy: dump the genteel advertising tradition in favor of a frontal attack on California's two biggest banks.

Outdoor boards he designed himself show a red circle with a line through it over a stagecoach, symbol of Wells Fargo Bank, coupled with headlines such as "Hit the Trail." An ad attacking Bank of America was headlined, "You deserve better." When Wells Fargo merged with First Interstate, one Glendale bank branch had a stagecoach outside with the sign, "Has your interstate bank gone coach?"

One of his guerrilla tactics, the launch of a floating ad barge on San Francisco Bay in view of two big bank headquarters, has generated requests from other marketers for use of its "sails" during special events.

"We needed a hard-hitting, attention-getting campaign to capture the imagination of the public," says Mr. Trafton, 49, adding that some of the attack concepts came from bank employees.

Mr. Trafton's marketing success is driven by a strategy of building a personalized community bank through the checking account business, the core consumer-account relationship.

Through the ad campaign, the bank, with 150 branches, is now one of California's fastest growing, signing up 10,000 new customers each month for the past year and a half, he says. Overall, the bank's name recognition has jumped from 15th to third, behind the two giants.

"You could make a very good living on those customers who distrust those [big] banks and want to leave," he says.

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