Bank Brokers Tailoring Sales Pitches to Immigrants

Article excerpt

Banks seeking to broaden their market for investment products are turning to an international audience -- right here in the United States.

Building on efforts begun over the past decade to encourage immigrants to open checking accounts and take out loans, financial institutions are reaching out to segments of the population that until recently had been largely neglected by investment product marketers.

"People have awakened to the fact that these groups represent a significant part of their market," said Jeff Liekhus, an analyst at Market Trends, a Seattle research firm. As a result, there has been "significant activity" among financial institutions targeting ethnic groups as likely consumers of banking and investment services in recent years, Mr. Liekhus said.

Last month Bank of America Corp. retained specialty advertising agencies to focus on the Hispanic and Asian markets. The opportunities are much larger in the wake of the old BankAmerica Corp.'s merger with NationsBank Corp., said Maxine Matteo, marketing customer group manager of the Charlotte, N.C., company. "We've made a commitment to ourselves that anything we do from a campaign perspective will have an ethnic component," Ms. Matteo said.

That policy is fueled largely by the success of a deposit and investment account campaign aimed at Asian-Americans in the San Francisco area this year, she said.

The company did a mass mailing to the Asian community to coincide with the lunar new year. Ms. Matteo said account openings in designated Asian banking centers totaled 2,200, a 142% improvement from the previous year.

To date, the company's ethnic-targeted marketing has focused on traditional retail products, but the bank is gearing up to include investment products, said Ms. Matteo.

Near-term initiatives include investment seminars in branches serving the Asian community and foreign language signs and brochures.

Bank of America already has designated Hispanic and Asian centers in heavily ethnic areas, with marketing literature and signs in the appropriate languages and bilingual employees. It has made a point of hiring series 6 and series 7 brokers who speak Spanish, Korean, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Vietnamese.

The company is also expanding a language certification program, in place in the West, to its eastern markets.

Employees who do more than 60% or 70% of their transactions in a language other than English are given a language proficiency test; those who show a high level of aptitude get a "very generous" raise, said Ms. Matteo.

"We're starting to look at what other emerging markets are out there," said Ms. Matteo. For instance, the bank has a large Russian customer base in the Pacific Northwest, and similar ethnic pockets may eventually lend themselves to local campaigns.

For the most part, financial institutions have focused ethnic marketing on Hispanics and Asians, the fastest-growing segments of the U.S. population in size and purchasing power.

According to the Census Bureau, Hispanic median income reached $26,628 in 1997, up 4.5% from 1996, while the Hispanic population increased 3.7%. Median income among Asian households was $45,249 in 1997, a 2.2% increase, while the population grew 3.8%.

American median income overall was $37,005 in 1997, and the population grew by 0.9%. The University of Georgia's Selig Center for Economic Growth estimated that Hispanic and Asian buying power from 1990 to 1999 grew 84% and 102%, respectively. Buying power, defined as aggregate income after taxes, grew just 57% in the total population during that period. …