Mary Navarro has an old-school view of bank marketing and advertising budgets — the bigger the better.

Recent experience has only reinforced the philosophy of the director of retail and business banking at Huntington Bancshares Inc.

Huntington, of Columbus, Ohio, spent 51% more last quarter — the biggest increase among its peers — on everything from highway billboards to product launches.

Its $16.9 million outlay helped it open checking accounts for 67,000 more households and increase revenue from consumer checking by 9%.

"From what we know about marketing and bank marketing, if you are not investing it is harder to get the return and grow share," Navarro said. "The numbers really speak for themselves."

Yet mounting pressure to cut costs because the economy is not recovering fast enough has big banks weighing whether to take a scalpel to marketing and advertising expenses like they did during the crisis of 2009. While Huntington's message to Wall Street on that matter is loud and clear — it will spend money now to make money later — some of its rivals are more reluctant to spell out their position.

That is because how much an institution spends on brand-building is a touchy subject, and one that no two big banks are going about in the same way as the industry recovers. Aside from laying people off, shrinking the branding budget is one of the easiest ways to manage expenses. But analysts and investors do not like to see that. A robust ad budget indicates that a bank is strong.

Marty Mosby, an analyst with Guggenheim Securities LLC and former chief financial officer of First Horizon National Corp., said big banks slash ad budgets at their peril. The 14 big banks he covers — which in normal times allocate about 5% of expenses to marketing — began restoring their ad budgets in 2010. He'll be disappointed if that trend doesn't continue through 2011.

"People need to hear from their banks. It's part of the growth, part of what they have to focus on, their image," Mosby said.

"I want to make sure that they don't cave in and try to make up these pennies" they are losing because of tepid loan demand and higher regulatory costs by curtailing brand investing, Mosby said. "In the long run, that is going to come back to haunt them."

As of the most recent quarter, just about as many big banks are heeding that warning as ignoring it.

Regulatory filings of the country's 21 retail-heavy banks with at least $50 billion of assets show that 11 of them spent more on advertising year over year during the first quarter. That excludes commercial banks whose primary business is specialized lending or trust services.

Huntington was the biggest gainer, according to call reports.

Two companies with big credit card operations were next: Ad spending rose 31% at Capital One Financial Corp., and 26% at Citigroup Inc. The retail banking arm of Capital One increased ad spending 43%, and Citi spent 48% more.

The growth at those two was not all that surprising because credit card advertising is expensive and cyclical.

Huntington was an outlier when it came to advertising spending in the first quarter. It was one of only two regional banks to spend more on advertising both year over year and quarter to quarter. The other one: M&T Bank Corp., of Buffalo, N.Y. That is striking because ad spending typically falls from the fourth to first quarter because it tends to be unusually high at yearend.

Like M&T, Huntington is pointedly trying to steal business from in-market rivals.

An M&T spokesman said its marketing people were unavailable to comment.

That raises two obvious questions: Who is cutting back? And is that hurting their revenue? The broad answers are: Lots of banks are cutting for different reasons, and it could hurt some of them.

PNC Financial Services Group Inc.'s marketing spending fell sharply year over year because it spent a lot of money on an advertising blitz involving its purchase of National City Corp. of Cleveland.

Company spokesman Fred Solomon said its budget has returned to a "sustainable level." He declined to say whether it would be any higher or lower.

Others that cut their ad budgets year over year are companies still dealing with problem loans, like KeyCorp, of Cleveland, and Regions Financial Corp., of Birmingham, Ala.

Four are subsidiaries of foreign banks, two of which are still dealing with recovery issues: Citizens Financial Group Inc., of Providence, R.I., which is owned by the Royal Bank of Scotland, and HSBC Holding's U.S. banking arm, a nearly 480-branch retail and business bank that mostly operates in New York state. The other two are Toronto-Dominion Bank and Compass Bancshares Inc., the U.S. unit of Spain's BBVA SA.

The impact is hard to gauge because even relatively healthy banks are collecting less loan interest and fee income. So while M&T, for instance, posted more loan and fee income this quarter as ad spending climbed, Citi's retail bank did not.

Improvements in technology and the wide reach of the Internet mean that — in theory — targeted advertising approaches can be as effective as stadium-naming deals and television ads. In the past, banks used send out 50,000 flyers to every potential customer in a certain zip code. Now they are figuring out how to send just 10,000 of them, but only to people they figure have a good chance of actually being wooed by their pitch.

For instance, they are doing things like sending ads for a college savings account to a parent with a teenager.

"There is a real revenue-growth challenge on the table today," said Mary Beth Sullivan, managing partner and head of marketing consulting for the Capital Performance Group Inc. "More analytically driven targeted marketing is going to be needed to make up for that."

But argeted marketing can only do so much on a slimmer adverting budget, she said.

"It's not necessarily cheaper," she said. "It's just different."

Sara Lepro contributed to this story.

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