Fifth Third Bancorp opens ad campaign

Three months after buying Charlotte-based First Charter Corp., Fifth Third Bancorp is launching what it calls its biggest advertising push ever.

The “Unlock Your Dreams” campaign, which started Tuesday, centers on a $250,000 sweepstakes. Customers and noncustomers alike can enter by stopping at a branch to ask for a scratch-off game piece.

Each piece has a code that lets people enter the sweepstakes online, at The pieces also offer prizes such as $10 MasterCard gift cards, as well as others that are contingent on being a bank customer, like $50 off the fee for a mortgage loan application.

The bank is advertising Unlock Your Dreams through multiple venues, including radio, newspapers, and a large billboard on the side of uptown Charlotte's EpiCentre – which is unofficially Bank of America Corp.'s turf. “We were just using all the media outlets we can,” said Bob James, chief executive officer of Fifth Third's N.C. operations.

The bank aims to drive traffic to its branches, as well as help customers plan for goals like a new home, a college education or a vacation. “If it's a young person looking to buy their first home, we would talk to them about how to save for a down payment, the products we have to help with that, and then mortgage alternatives to help with that purpose,” James said.

James was First Charter's CEO when it was bought by Cincinnati-based Fifth Third in June. Before the acquisition, First Charter was the third largest bank headquartered in Charlotte, behind Bank of America and Wachovia Corp.

The acquisition means that former First Charter customers have a broader footprint of banks to visit, as well as new products to choose from, such as credit cards. Most customers, James said, have been “very patient and understanding with the changes and have remained loyal to the company.” Some, however, have complained of inconveniences like having to sign up again for online banking, or they say they were caught off guard by the change.

“With any conversion there are a few bumps in the road, and it took us a couple of weeks to smooth that out,” James said Tuesday. “We sent information out (about the merger) more than 30 days in advance, but most people don't read that when it's from their bank. We had people who didn't realize there was a merger until they got their new bank statement.”

Fifth Third, the country's 15th-largest bank by assets, has seen its stock price fall by about 50 percent since a year ago, closing at $16.26 on Tuesday. James pointed out that, even so, former First Charter shareholders have still come out ahead. Its shares were trading at about $20 when the merger was announced last August, and shareholders were given 1.74 Fifth Third shares for each First Charter share. So one First Charter share was worth about $28.29 Tuesday – a premium of more than 40 percent.

“I don't know of any bank stock in the United States that's gone up that much in the past year,” James said.