From Annuities To Art

Posted on Aug 1, 2009 :: Small Business Spotlight
Sharon Verbeten
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Bank’s partnership uses art as a marketing tool

Randi Hillesø has been manager of marketing and communication for American National Bank Fox Cities for just one year, but already her out-of-the-box ideas are bringing a higher profile to the small, locally owned Appleton bank.

“We needed to gain visibility,” says Hillesø (her full name is pronounced RON-dee HILL-es-eyu). Even though ANB has been around for 16 years, she adds, “the changing economy required a different look and [we needed to] reposition ourselves.”

Her idea to partner with the Appleton Art Center to launch a showcase of local artists in the bank’s lobby has exceeded even the bank’s initial expectations in terms of reception attendance, artists’ sales and local buzz.

“I was trying to figure out how to make a small bank competitive in a larger market,” says Hillesø. “We only have one branch, one building, so we can’t compete head on with other banks. I was trying to find a partnership where we could gain more momentum.”

The Gallery at American National Bank has done just that. The schedule of exhibits kicked off last December – a noticeably swift five months after Hillesø came on board. The wine and cheese receptions that open each six-week exhibit have drawn 70 to 90 guests, she says, almost triple what the bank had initially anticipated.

“We were all pretty surprised,” Hillesø says, noting that she was especially pleased that many of the guests had never been in the bank before.

The idea to pair banks with art is not a new one – Heritage Bank of Commerce in San Jose, Calif., and Santa Cruz (Calif.) County Bank also have in-house art galleries – but Hillesø, herself an artist, felt the idea was ideal both for culturally savvy Appleton, as well as for ANB’s customers.

“It really suits our constituency,” she says. “We’re not going after CD rates; we’re after the ‘high touch’ customer – the one that appreciates full service. It suits the culture of the bank.”

“I think this model is really a visionary one,” says Tim Riley, executive director of the Appleton Art Center. “A collaboration like this permits some of our most talented local and regional artists another venue to display their work. It also allows us to reach new audiences who might never walk into an art gallery.”

The exhibits – which hang in the bank’s spacious, well-lit and “meandering” lobby – range from multi-artist events to single-artist displays. All work is juried for appropriateness and diversity and is offered for sale. Commissions are split between the artist and the Appleton Art Center, a nonprofit organization.

“The artists’ response has been tremendous,” Hillesø says.

Due to its popularity and success, both for the partners involved and the community, Hillesø plans to continue the Gallery next year.

It’s been a big boon, with only a minimal marketing investment, for ANB – which remains confident that it will reap measurable benefits. Hillesø says she can already see a tangible response from everyone who enters the lobby.

“The response when the art comes down – just those few days when there is a void, everybody feels that void of energy,” Hillesø says.

Riley agreed, noting how he has seen both bank visitors as well as employees engaged in conversations about art.

“[Some people] wouldn’t necessarily think of going to an art gallery…but they [see the Gallery and] become hooked. That’s a great by-product of this collaboration.”