Bank of America retained RF|Binder Partners in January 2001, to assist the Charlotte, NC-based bank with effectively communicating a major organizational transition. Long-time chairman and CEO Hugh McColl, who created the present-day Bank of America through dozens of acquisitions over 30 years, was retiring. Taking over for McColl was then-president Ken Lewis. As the new chairman and CEO, Lewis was setting out to engineer a dramatic change in the bank’s business model, from one that was largely acquisition-driven to one focused on customer-centric organic growth.
RF|Binder’s primary assignment for 2001 was to work with Bank of America to effectively communicate the new CEO’s business strategy via national media (i.e., New York-based major business press) and help correct misconceptions within the financial community.
The financial community had turned negative on Bank of America more than a year earlier, due to several recent problems related to acquisition-integration, and the bank had yet to deliver on its promise of becoming the first and best example of the “financial supermarket” concept. At the same time, the media was very aware of the investment community’s disappointment in the bank’s financial performance. The New York-centric national business media also tended to relegate the Charlotte-based bank to second-tier status (despite being the country’s #1 consumer bank and #3 financial services corporation overall), due in some part to its lack of a geographical presence in the northeast region.
Research / Planning / Objectives
RF|Binder’s first step was to accurately assess the investment community’s perception of the bank, in order to ensure all misconceptions would be fully addressed in ensuing communications. To that end, RF|Binder’s launched a comprehensive “perception analysis” survey of investors and analysts during the first quarter of 2001. The thinking was that an agency-led, “third-party” survey would yield more direct, opinionated responses than the bank’s IR team tended to receive in face-to-face meetings.
RF|Binder also began working closely with Bank of America’s internal communications professionals to evaluate top-tier media’s attitudes/opinions about the corporation, and identify potential candidates in the media for a fair/positive “transition” story. Bank of America also arranged for face-to-face interviews for RF|Binder with more than a dozen members of the CEO’s senior leadership team, to ensure all corporate issues were addressed in messaging, and that everyone would be speaking to the media and analysts from the same page. Following this process, the bank and the agency developed a strategic “game-plan” for 2001.
The ultimate objectives for RF|Binder and Bank of America were relatively straightforward, albeit challenging given the bank’s recent history:
· Effectively communicate the new Bank of America story to key audiences, including New York-based business and financial media as well as the Wall Street community and investors.
· Enhance existing relationships and build new ones with these important audiences
· Publicly establish Ken Lewis as the highly capable CEO of one of the world’s largest, strongest and most successful financial services organizations, via a high profile feature in a top-tier business publication.
· Underscore the bank’s breadth and depth – in terms of management strength, products and services and customer base – by showcasing key business strengths on an ongoing basis
Strategy / Execution
The basic strategy was to ensure messages to all external audiences (e.g., investors, media) were closely aligned and effectively communicated the “new” Bank of America story, and then focus on securing a high-profile feature story at the national level that would accurately portray Ken Lewis’ vision for transforming the bank’s culture and business growth model.
RF|Binder worked closely with the bank’s entire senior management team to craft a new set of key messages for the organization; these messages focused on:
· The management team
· The new organic growth business model
· The tremendous value in the corporation’s set of assets and the ability of the senior team to manage those assets
· The bank’s strategy for using technology across the organization to effect change.
In conjunction with Bank of America’s IR team, RF|Binder then conducted a comprehensive investor perception study, which ultimately included in-depth conversations with more than 50 buy- and sell-side analysts and/or investors, to learn what this audience truly thought about the bank’s financial performance/opportunity; these findings contributed significantly to the messaging process. Based on existing relationships as well as exhaustive research, RF|Binder next identified a unique set of New York-based target media who could be open to writing on the new Bank of America story.
RF|Binder also worked with the CEO lead speechwriter to identify and secure a small number of high-profile speaking engagements for Ken Lewis during his first year, including the well-regarded BusinessWeek CEO Conference and the World Economic Forum’s annual gathering in Davos, Switzerland. We also planned a Ken Lewis by-lined article on management strategy, for 2002 publication in the Harvard Business Review.
Finally, the bank and the agency created a strategic plan for pursuing “relatively” lower risk, high profile media coverage on the new Bank of America. The first focus for this initiative was Fortune, based on the magazine’s proclivity for stories on management strategy and CEO profiles. Following a significant amount of research into Fortune magazine’s editorial staff, as well as a conversation with executive editor John Huey, it was decided that Tom Stewart, a long-time editorial board member and authority on CEO leadership was the best candidate.
Mr. Stewart agreed to do the story, and interviewed more than 15 senior executives at the bank over the course of two months, and ultimately penned a highly optimistic 5,000-word feature, titled “Where the Money Is,” that appeared in Fortune’s September 1, 2001 issue.
Concurrently, the bank began to receive progressively favorable coverage in the financial trades and other general business media. The Fortune story led to feature inquiries from other top-tier general business media, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Institutional Investor. RF|Binder and Bank of America chose to leverage the Fortune story, along with dramatically improving financial results, into a very positive feature article, titled “Wrestling a Behemoth into Shape,” in an early January 2002 issue of BusinessWeek, which had previously been quite tough on the corporation.
During this entire period, Bank of America’s stock price made a steady upward climb. Over the course of 2001, BAC’s share price increased 36 percent, easily outpacing Citigroup and JP Morgan Chase, as well as the sector as a whole and the overall market, and the analyst community turned increasingly positive on the stock.
RF|Binder’s success at the corporate level has led to significant opportunities to broaden its relationship with the bank. Before the end of 2001, RF|Binder was retained for assignments in 2002 to support the bank’s branding campaign as well as its global corporate & investment bank (GCIB).