As the ongoing bear market cramps advertising budgets, bank fund executives are looking to book appearances on cable TV financial channels as a cheaper way to tell investors about themselves.
Advertising by fund companies dropped by more than 25%, to $266 million, last year, according to Competitrack, a New York firm that monitors television and print advertising.
Companies still need to get their message to customers. The availability of "free media" has become for some a more important way of boosting investor awareness of fund families.
As a result, public relations specialists say, more bank fund marketers are turning to media training programs. Media training is offered by public relations companies and specialized firms and can include national tours complete with television and radio spots and newspaper articles that help the funds' executives deliver their message to the masses.
Executives at public relations firms and banks say this type of coverage is key to building legitimacy in a crowded market, especially for lesser-known bank-owned funds.
Dan Sondhelm, a vice president at SunStar, an Alexandria, Va., company that provides media training for financial institutions, said he puts banking executives and portfolio managers through a "media boot camp," introducing them to television studios and getting them to be more aware of how they appear on camera.
"Bank-run fund families are having trouble selling within their own banks," Sondhelm said. "Brokers barely know that proprietary funds exist. They are more comfortable selling Oppenheimer or Putnam because their story is out there. By getting people on television and in newspapers, it gives the funds credibility."
His company charges $3,000 a day for media training and promises to set up interviews with a certain number of media outlets, such as CNBC and Bloomberg TV, each month, Sondhelm said. He said he has trained executives from six bank-owned fund companies since SunStar began offering specialized training for these firms last year. He expects to train 50 to 75 fund managers this year.
A Day of Training
Victoria Morrison, head of marketing at Johnson Family Funds, said she and the group's chief investment officer, Wendell Perkins, got a day of training with Sondhelm in December. She said the boot-camp approach worked well for a small fund company like Johnson, which has four portfolios and $230 million of assets under management.
Johnson Family is the fund group of Racine, Wis.-based Johnson International, the financial services company owned by the S.C. Johnson family, better known for making consumer products like Pledge furniture polish and Ziploc bags. Having executives appear on television "is helping us create awareness of our funds," Morrison said. "We now have the opportunity to tell our story both within [Johnson Bank], so they understand what we are doing, and through other distribution channels."
Kathie Barr, managing director of National City Corp.'s Armada Funds, said 20 portfolio managers and executives have been trained since the company began working with SunStar in February 2001.
Barr said the biggest success has been Dan Bandi, Armada's head of value investing, who has appeared 24 times on CNBC's "Power Lunch," Bloomberg TV, "Jag FM" -- a New York radio show -- and Yahoo Finance Vision. He took two training sessions before doing any interviews and attended two refresher courses.
We Saw You on Television
Bandi said Armada's "message just wasn't out there. Not beyond National City, and not even within National City. Now people approach me and say they saw me on television. I know it is getting out there."
During a difficult year for investments, Barr said, assets under management in the Cleveland company's 30 portfolios rose 10%, to $18.5 billion.
Ken Thompson, head of M&T Bank Corp.'s Vision Funds in Buffalo, N.Y., said that, since independent fund companies spend more than $10 million a year apiece on marketing and advertising, bank funds have to work harder to promote themselves. Six Vision Funds portfolio managers underwent media training in December, he said, and within weeks the firm's chief investment officer, Bill Dwyer, was on a media tour in New York.
"We can tell from the distribution force that this is having a positive effect," Thompson said. "It brings credibility to the process in a neat way. We knew that we had people who were capable and competent, and after seeing them on CNBC, investors, financial advisers, and brokers know."
Tell it to the Masses
Doug Donsky, a senior vice president with the financial services unit of Edelman Public Relations Worldwide in New York, said public relations has always been a strong communications tool for banks. "It is more cost-effective than advertising," he said.
Burton Greenwald, a fund analyst based in Philadelphia, said fund companies "need to tell their stories to the masses and to the specific investors. They need to go on television, whether it is during the program or during the commercials.
They also need to target investors with literature in the branches."
Television professionals say coaching has become a fact of life for their guests.
"We see people come in here with an entourage of public relations people. Others walk in by themselves," said Glen Rochkind, the senior assignment manager at CNBC. "But I can't imagine that a single one of them has walked in here without some form of preparation, and in some ways we are beneficiaries of that, because we want people who are prepared."
Chuck Kaufman, president of the Kaufman Group, a Boston outfit that handles public relations for financial services firms, said that as more firms put people in front of the camera, "it is very eye-opening for them to see what they are doing. In my years doing media training, there has never been an occurrence where someone hasn't said, wow,' and improved. Seeing themselves on the screen is very important."