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With flame of humanity, banks try to melt icy image

TD Bank’s “Bank human again” ads (left) and Bank of America’s “Life’s better when we’re connected” campaign are two of the efforts that banks have made to connect with people.

TD Bank’s “Bank human again” ads (left) and Bank of America’s “Life’s better when we’re connected” campaign are two of the efforts that banks have made to connect with people.

Banks are trying to wipe away years of bruising headlines and blame for the financial crisis with a simple message: They care about you.

In print, television, and online advertising, mid-size banks and the nation’s largest institutions are spending millions to stress their relationships with customers, emphasizing the personal touch even as they shutter branches and invest in inventions, like mobile apps and smarter ATMs, that reduce actual human contact.

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They’re featuring sepia-tinted photos and feel-good vignettes, with bankers in the background helping families plan for a wedding or buy a new dog. They spotlight their efforts to help military service members, struggling communities, and Main Street businesses.

Bank officials acknowledge their reputations have taken hits in the past five years and the advertising campaigns are an attempt to show consumers that banks do help people.

“The big takeaway is that there’s been an erosion of trust,” said Meredith Verdone, head of Bank of America’s brand marketing. “We recognize that. And we needed to rebuild that.”

Bank of America, one of the nation’s largest banks, rolled out a campaign in April called “Life’s better when we’re connected,” developed with Boston-based advertising agency Hill Holliday. Wells Fargo & Co. of San Francisco has adopted the tagline “When people talk great things happen.” At TD Bank, it’s “Bank human again,” and at Eastern Bank, the state’s largest community bank, the slogan is “Here, you’re first.”

It’s no surprise that banks are trying a friendly focus, said John Verret, an associate professor at Boston University and former president of the Boston ad agency Arnold Communications. These commercials probably would not have worked two years ago, when the public was much angrier with banks and wouldn’t have believed the sentimental messaging, he said.

But the economy is improving, and consumers are investing, spending, and borrowing more. That provides an opportunity for banks to gain new customers, Verret said.

“They’re all fishing,” Verret said. “They’re all trying to protect their base and trying to get as much new business as they can.”

Still, it’s going to take more than soft-focused television spots and catchy taglines to burnish the reputation of banks, said Anthony Johndrow, a managing partner with Reputation Institute, a New York reputation management consultancy. After a mortgage crisis and government bailout, not to mention increasing fees, some banks are viewed by consumers with the same latent hostility as tobacco companies, according to a survey by Reputation Institute and the trade publication American Banker.

Banks, Johndrow said, have yet to acknowledge mistakes that contributed to the recent mortgage crisis, foreclosure crisis, and economic crisis, or reassure customers that they’ve taken specific steps to prevent future crises.

“I’ve seen very little apologies,” Johndrow said. “Nobody has owned up. They haven’t said we’ve done these things to make sure this won’t happen again.”

Instead, banks have unveiled new commercials. TD Bank ditched celebrities Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa late last year in favor of spots that remind consumers that they’re different from other banks, not cold, gray, and automated.

TD isn’t trying to be the customer’s best friend, said Vinoo Vijay, the bank’s chief marketing officer. Instead, it is focusing on its convenience features, such as the coin-counting machines and late hours, he said.

Consumers see banks as a “necessary hassle,” Vijay said. “Our basic thought was that consumers like to have these human experiences.”

Bob Rivers, the president of Eastern Bank, said banks have fewer products that are comparatively different from their competitors. So, Eastern Bank’s spots have stressed customer service, with one commercial about the bank’s decision to open a branch in downtown Lawrence featuring local merchants and their workers.

Bank of America commercials show several narratives, including a dad using his credit card to take his sons out for the day to the aquarium, amusement park, and batting cages.

For Bank of America, the ad campaign is just one element of the bank’s refocus after the financial crisis, said Verdone, the head of brand marketing. The bank is closing and selling about 12 percent of its nearly 5,700 branches and eliminating about 30,000 jobs in the next few years. It’s rebuilding its capital and trying to deepen its relationship with existing customers, by offering them more products and conveniences such as mobile banking, Verdone said.

But rebuilding the bank’s reputation will take time, Verdone said. Bank of America became a poster child for too-big-to-fail banks that engaged in risky practices that led to the financial crisis. On Tuesday, the Justice Department sued Bank of America, alleging that it defrauded investors by underestimating the risks of mortgage-backed securities.

Verdone said she sees hope that the ads are helping to change the bank’s image. Instead of the constant complaints about Bank of America on social media sites, some consumers have mentioned wanting to open an account after seeing a commercial, she said.

“We’ve had a few bursts of positive” mentions on social media, Verdone said.

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.
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