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Santander aims for US acceptance with a new media campaign

Robert De Niro will be featured in television commercials tied to a new Santander product.

Santander Bank

Robert De Niro will be featured in television commercials tied to a new Santander product.

Can a foreign bank with a tough-to-pronounce name become a household brand?

In the next few months, Santander Bank will try to establish its brand name in the United States with television and print advertising, sports sponsorships, new products, donations to nonprofits, a refreshed online presence, and commercials featuring actor Robert De Niro.

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Spanish-based Santander, pronounced “sahn-tahn-DARE” acquired Sovereign Bank in 2009 as the springboard for its US ambitions, but ditched the Sovereign flag last week. Most of the bank’s 700 branches and ATMs across nine northeastern states display the Santander name.

But the tougher challenge for Santander is to keep and increase customers under a brand that has very little recognition or loyalty in the United States. That could be difficult, considering that few people in the United States know Santander, said Steve Reider, president of Bancography, a Birmingham, Ala.-based bank consulting firm.

Light bulbs above heads are featured in Santander’s television ads.

Santander Bank

Light bulbs above heads are featured in Santander’s television ads.

“It’s not a made-up word, but to most of the American public it might as well be,” Reider said. “It is a blank page that means you have to define it effectively.”

Santander is the fourth-largest bank by deposits in Massachusetts and has 1.7 million US customers. Emilio Botin, chairman of the parent company, said last week during a visit to the United States that he hopes to see profits for the American business double in three years to $2 billion.

Santander has said that it will spend $200 million on the rebranding campaign, for signs, new furniture and carpeting at branches, advertising, new products, and upgrades to its mobile phone application. Kathy Klingler, Santander’s chief marketing officer, declined to disclose the bank’s spending on advertising, but said it is a small part of the entire rebranding cost, she said.

The first phase of Santander’s advertising campaign includes television commercials featuring its new slogan, “A bank for your ideas,” which was developed in Madrid and is being deployed globally. For the US market, the commercials were created by Boston-based Arnold Worldwide and feature commuters, joggers, mothers in playgrounds, and office workers with light bulbs floating above their heads.

On Sunday, Santander will also release television commercials tied to a new product featuring De Niro, in which the actor strikes up a conversation with a moviegoer in a theater.

The company is also airing a radio spot for the next week that riffs on the difficulty customers have pronouncing Santander, with a grandma, a mailman, a librarian, and a personal trainer, among others, saying the name.

Santander used an online focus group made up of customers, prospective clients, and employees to test the messages and commercials, Klingler said.

“For television, we wanted to set the stage on a more real level and to be about customers,” Klingler said. The radio ad was a chance for the bank to take itself less seriously, she said.

As part of the rebranding campaign, Santander has also donated $100,000 to help restore the Hatch Memorial Shell on the Charles River Esplanade and signed on as the official bank sponsor of the Philadelphia Eagles football team.In other countries, Santander sponsors Formula 1 racing teams and soccer tournaments.

Will these efforts be enough to give Santander the boost it needs here? Edward Boches, an advertising professor at Boston University, said the company is off to a good start. Santander’s commercials have avoided the pitfalls of most bank commercials, which tend to be dull. Santander’s commercials seem to be targeting innovators and entrepreneurs and are focused on customers, Boches said. “The light bulb is a cliché,” he said, “but it feels like they did it OK.”

But Reider, the Bancography analyst, said Santander’s “A bank for your ideas” slogan seems bland for a company trying to make a mark on a new audience. “It’s one of those everyman tags,” Reider said. “I would give them a little bit of time, to invest something in their name.”

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

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