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Volume 39 Issue 8 • June 25-July 1, 2009
now in our 39th season

When History Was the Message

by Lawrence K. DeLamarter

In today's era of mini-bite messages and pseudoscientific branding, the marketing of the Pacific National Bank in the "Golden Era of Hank Kehlenbeck" seems very strange.  The marketing was based on a simple fact: what the bank had to sell was its illustrious and interesting past.  What started as a campaign to increase the bank's business soon took on a historical aspect of its own.  In the end, the bank not only created a new old image, but produced historic booklets that were distributed by the thousands.

Henry G. Kehlenbeck not only knew his market, he understood what drew customers to the bank.  "We're marketing Nantucket, not giving away toasters!" was his gruff explanation.  "And we're selling to ladies. They always controlled the money here on the island."

At the time I was one of the owners of a small Boston advertising agency—what was called a creative boutique.  When I first went to meet Hank on a busy summer Saturday morning, I was told that he was out on the bank floor.

Looking over the busy floor there was no bank president to be seen.  I inquired of the receptionist, Linda Davis, "Is Mr. Kehlenbeck available?"

She pointed to a pair of battered loafers poking out from under one of the desks.  "Hank's over there fixing the desk."

Standing above the desk, I politely called his name. 

"Mr. Kehlenbeck?"  No answer.

"Mr. Kehlenbeck?"  Still no answer.

After a few moments, I heard a few salty expletives.  I don't exactly recall what they were.  Then there slowly emerged the president himself.  First appeared a pair of thoroughly tattered Nantucket reds.  Then a well-worn Pac Man T-shirt.  Finally, there emerged Henry G. Kehlenbeck himself, who remained seated on the floor, his legs skewed to one side.  I couldn't help thinking that I was addressing a midget Mel Brooks.


Hank the Bank, photo courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association

Hank the Bank was a natural at marketing.  He could sum up an idea or concept more succinctly and more colorfully than anyone I have ever met.  And from the start he declared that our direction would be historical.  Fortunately, both my degrees are in history—degrees whose worth had often been questioned by my parents and other more practical folks.

The letter of agreement between the agency and the bank was mailed out with a minimalist address:

Hank the Bank
Nantucket Island

Of course it got through.

A few weeks after we landed the Pacific National Bank account, the American Bankers Association held its annual convention in Atlanta.  The main topic was the impending deregulation of the industry.  The Wall Street Journal carried an in-depth story on the convention, quoting Laurance Rockefeller and other banking ayatollahs with their thoughts on the future of banking, in light of the deregulation.  Among the bankers quoted was Henry G.  Kehlenbeck of the Pacific National Bank of Nantucket. As I recall, Hank was quoted as saying, "We are the second-oldest profession.  And if you don't have better service on a Saturday night, they'll go to another house."

I must have received clippings of that article from half a dozen friends, the gist of the accompanying notes being that this was, indeed, a client–agency match made in heaven.  It was.

The first task for me and my partner Jim Bennette was to come up with a positioning and logo. Of the many positionings presented, Hank finally chose: With a future as great as our past.  The new logo went beyond retro; it was created from actual old banknotes.  In the nineteenth century the bank's currency was accepted the width and breadth of the great ocean that shared its name.

Our campaigns were almost as retro as the logo.  There was an era of print advertising called “word magic.”  Word magic advertising was popular from the late nineteenth century until the advent of television.  Consumers had time to read and wanted to be entertained by advertising.  Ads during this era were stories.  "Always a bridesmaid, never a bride" told the story of a poor lass who had BO.  To sell the bank, we were going to use long copy and inviting illustrations in the same genre.

The agency's job was to create a series of stories, radio commercials, and, later, television spots that told of the modern bank by comparing it to its past.  Stories that demanded attention.

Coming up with the historic stories was easy.  A friend of mine, Maggie Conroy, had spent several years researching Nantucket women—much of it in primary sources at the Nantucket Historical Association.  Maggie also had written a wonderful play about Maria Mitchell titled Celestial Messengers.  Not only did Maggie share her knowledge and let me use her notes, she introduced me to Edouard Stackpole.

Now, getting background for creating advertising is not always that interesting.  Boring sales and product reports.  Even more boring research.  I once spent two days watching  videos of what customers looked for in an HMO.  Booooring!  Here I had Eddie Stackpole and his vast knowledge of island and whaling history—plus all the resources of the Nantucket Historical Association.

Over the years that I worked on the account, I spent many delightful hours in the museum and later at Mr. Stackpole's home on Main Street.  Stackpole, besides being a great history writer, was also an equally brilliant storyteller.  He could take a listener back 150 years, almost as if they were chatting about current events.  He was a human time machine.  How sad, I often thought, that there was not a university or even a college on Nantucket.  Three generations of history students missed Edouard Stackpole's beautiful lectures.  As it was, I was a totally captivated lecture hall of one student.  I was very, very fortunate.

Not that Henry Kehlenbeck used history for history's sake.  Each ad, radio spot, and TV commercial had to have a service to sell.  And if we were able to work in something mildly racy or scandalous, so much the better.  A transvestite sailor.  A device that created hysteria in females.  Cannibalism. . . .

Given here are simply the headline and a brief description of the copy for some of the ads we created, which ran as full pages in the Inquirer and Mirror.  Radio commercials were produced at Fleetwood Studios in Revere and were delivered like old-time radio dramas with great use of sound effects.

SAILOR JOHNSON

In 1836 a Nantucket bank helped outfit Sailor Johnson in petticoats for the voyage back from Peru.

Body copy dramatized a jilted Nantucket lass who ran away to sea, disguised as a man.  Unfortunately, she came down with a fever and her gender was discovered.

Today, that same Nantucket bank can outfit you with free American Express travelers checks for your off-island adventures. 

Note: most of these historic accounts were not well known and almost all involved females.  Many came from original sources and diaries, thanks to Maggie Conroy and Edouard Stackpole.  Although poetic license was sometimes used, all copy had to be approved by Stackpole.

THE PIANO

In 1838, a Nantucket bank helped "create hysteria and weaken females for motherhood."

Body copy tells the story of William Mitchell, whose daughters had a piano

delivered to their quarters above the bank.  This upset the Quaker elders, who threatened Mitchell with disownment (the Quaker equivalent of excommunication), until he reminded them that the bank held the mortgage on their meeting house. 

Today, that same bank is creating excitement with a new little object.

Copy introduced TellervisionR, a state-of-the-art computer system.  Customers excitedly came into the bank to witness the wonders of the computer.  They could instantly see their balances with this amazing new technology.

THE CAPTAIN AND THE CANNIBALS

In 1836, a Nantucket bank helped save Capt. Reuben Barney from the cannibals on Nuku Hiva.

Body copy told the Melvillesque tale of the good captain who was ransomed from Marquesas cannibals, using ship’s stores that were financed by the bank.

Today, that same bank offers a plastic Cash Card that can save your skin off-island.

NANTUCKET'S FEMALE MERCHANTS

In 1841, a Nantucket bank helped fill Rachel Easton's secret gingham pocket for her trips to Boston.

Body copy tells of the female merchants like Rachel Easton who ran the island's retail businesses.

Today, that same Nantucket bank offers a "gingham pocket" for trust customers.

Body copy announced the trust affiliation with the Bank of Boston.

Reproduction gingham purses were made for trust customers.

In the 1970s there was a very popular television show called “Charlie's Angels.”  Charlie was an older guy who had brilliant and gorgeous female detectives who worked for him. Basically, Henry employed the same concept when it came to running the bank.

We called them Henry's Angels.  Those marvelous ladies gave customers the finest banking service anywhere.  From a loan to an overdraft to simply a pleasant “Good morning,” the bank was dedicated to personal customer service.

The main reasons the bank was so successful was that the Pacific Bank ladies knew their customers.  The compliment that the bank often received was, “They know me when I come into the bank.”  This is the kind of positive perception that no amount of advertising or marketing can create.

Henry's Angels were really put to the test on summer Saturday mornings.  Angels took turns manning the phone at the lobby information desk. Whoever had this duty—Dorothy, Lisa, Linda, Jeanne, or Barbara—will never forget some of the requests.  The lady who wanted to be met at the night boat, because she couldn't find her way home in the dark.  The dog that wouldn't stop barking until he was paid off with a doggie biscuit.  The bank director who requested donuts with his homemade apple cider. . . . Like the girl in Oklahoma! Henry's Angels rarely said no.  And the customers loved them.

Reception of the historical anecdotes was tremendous.  Nantucketers could not get enough of their great past.  And the more obscure the history, the better they liked it.  In 1984, to celebrate the 180th anniversary of the bank’s incorporation, we created a small history booklet.  The twenty-page booklet was illustrated with the stories and images from the many ads.  Several thousand of the books were printed and given away.  In the late 1990s, I came across one in an antique bookshop with a price tag of $30.  They must be worth $50 by now.

We did not limit our advertising to print and radio.  To dramatize our stories for television, Hank brought together “The Piggy Bank Players,” his name for the local actors who starred in the commercials.  The Piggy Bank Players included illustrious islanders like Roger Young, Cynthia Young, Maggie Conroy, Clarence “Bud” Gifford, Priscilla Gifford, Dorothy Williams, and Carolyn Paris.

The Piggy Bank Players dressed in period costumes and dramatized great events in the bank's history.  Maria Mitchell discovering her comet from the roof of the bank and other topics were featured in these short commercials. 

The commercials were all shot on-island and directed by Ray Berger, a Boston director and wonderful character.  Ray and his wife, Marilynn, who served as producer, script lady, gaffer, and soundman were paid a stipend.  The agency also had some Sherburne Associates accounts, including the Harbor House, White Elephant, and Wharf Cottages.  Mr. Beinecke liked to pay in trade, so we remunerated the Bergers with food, drinks, and lodging.  And we all had lots of fun in the bargain.

Because the spots were shot on tape by the local cable station, the quality was less than Hollywood.  The lighting, however, was always brilliant.  Walter Lucas, a retired professional photographer, handled all the lighting.  Walt had worked with Ansel Adams and his sense of lighting was world-class.  People would comment on the work and couldn't believe it came out of Nantucket.  Little do off-islanders realize the treasure trove of talent on Nantucket.

There was a long out of print book titled The Nantucket Scrap Basket.  It was an eclectic collection of little-known facts about the island.  Historic snippets.  Local language.  Island characters.  Local trivia and significa.  With the success of the full-page ads, it was decided that we needed a small-space campaign to keep the historic theme alive and the bank’s name in front of the public.  These small ads were illustrated with charming cartoons.  In all, we produced some three dozen ads, some of which carried these tags:

The bank director who engraved his own money.  Ben Franklin's cousin (several times removed), Walter Folger, was a director of the bank and also engraved the bank's currency.

Nantucket Quakers called the days of the week by their numerical names, to avoid using pagan names.  One friend went so far as to refer to "Robinson Crusoe and his good man, Sixth Day."

The Nantucket Dictionary: Polpisy. Since the farmers of Polpis were known for their rustic manners, acting polpisy mean being a bumpkin.

Old Nantucket was known for its "salty" descriptions! Captain Stephen Bailey complained of a miserly oyster stew saying, "Can't you get me some more oysters?  These here are a day's sail apart!"

The bank that saved a town from burning.  During the Great Fire of 1846, the slate roof of the Pacific National Bank helped contain the fire and save the town.

These ad/cartoons ran in the Inquirer & Mirror and were immensely popular.  In fact, another island paper asked if they could run the ads for free.  We happily obliged.

In 1989, we published all these Nantucket scraps in a small booklet shaped like a check book. It was titled The History Cheque Book and many thousands were given away.  Roger Young on his famous walking tours would pop into the side door of the bank and pick them up to distribute to his tour groups.

Before the Bank of Boston acquired the Pacific National Bank, it acquired the bank's trust department.  There was to be a gathering in Boston to celebrate the event. The Bank of Boston's public relations department made several attempts at a press release to announce the event.  The releases went through several channels of B of B red tape and wound up without approval.  Hank got tired of the process and demanded, "Bull Frog (he always calls me Bull Frog), you write the release and I'll approve it.”  So I did.

The Bank of Boston's PR folks were glad to be off the hook.  They were somewhat confused, however, when the press release went out announcing that the venerable Pacific National Bank of Nantucket was acquiring an off-island bank.

This was reminiscent of one of our stories about the new West Church in Boston, which wrote the then impoverished Unitarian Church.  The Boston church offered to buy the lovely old Spanish Bell [sic— the bell came from Portugal] for their magnificent new church.  The classic island reply was that the Nantucketers would trade their magnificent old bell for a lovely new church.

Marketing-and-advertising, despite what ad types may tell you, is not an art form or a science.  Although we did win many awards for creativity, the whole idea was to sell the bank's products and create new business.  And the bank's marketing-and-advertising under Hank Kehlenbeck was a huge success. 

When we first got the account the bank's deposit base was a modest $20 million.  This grew to a peak of $120 million in the mid-1980s.  Bank services were expanded rapidly and our success became a topic of weekly review by the competition. What ad did they run this week?  Did you see the latest Pacific Bank TV commercial? Can you imagine doing an ad about a transvestite sailor?  Did you hear how customers were winning free Thanksgiving turkeys on their ATM receipts?  What are they going to do next?

And the island loved it.

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