Successful affinity checking account programs around sponsorship of the NHL Columbus Blue Jackets and Ohio State University athletics has prompted Huntington Bancshares Inc.’s Huntington Bank to launch similar promotions with local high schools across its five-state territory.

Since launching its Blue Jackets Banking checking account in March, more than 9,000 customers have opened new accounts or converted existing ones, exceeding expectations, said Barry Salmons, who as electronic media manager is responsible for leveraging the Blue Jackets tie.

“We have been very impressed with the success of the program, especially since most of the growth has happened during the team’s off-season,” he said.

On top of that, Huntington has enrolled 117,000 customers–13 percent of its checking accounts–into the Buckeye Banking program it runs around its OSU sponsorship.

Based on that success, the bank this fall rolled out School Spirit Checks in partnership with local high schools. The program offers checks embossed with the logos, mascots and sports slogans from each participating school. For each new check order, Huntington makes a $3 donation to the school.

“Huntington has found a way to help schools raise money, give families more choice in the checks they normally order and spread team spirit around the community,” said Mary Navarro, executive senior vice president, retail and commercial banking.

The program also provides a low-cost platform to tie into the passions of local fans, said Jeri Grier-Ball, the company’s senior vice president of corporate communications.

Corporate has charged its eight regional offices with striking deals with area school districts. For example, the bank’s Central Ohio region has teamed with 13 schools thus far.

“It’s a great way for us to involve ourselves locally and show a commitment to the community,” said Michael Lindley, Huntington’s West Michigan marketing director, who has partnered with six schools this year and plans to “significantly expand” the program in ’07.

To further demonstrate its support for schools, the bank is underwriting the cost of printing tickets for high school athletic and performance events. The bank also has launched a Web site–huntingtonforschools.com–that does not yet tout the checking program, but offers information on budgeting and financial planning tailored to parents, students and teachers. The bank uses the site to tout college loans and other products.

Huntington does leverage its Blue Jackets checking account directly through BlueJacketsBanking.com, which features an interactive hockey game as well as product information. It also promotes the accounts and offers on-site sign-ups in the Huntington Hall section of the team’s Nationwide Arena.

Around its OSU partnership, consumers can use their Buckeye Banking check card to receive a 15 percent discount on purchases at off-campus OSU-themed retailers such as the Buckeye Hall of Fame Café and Buckeye Corner. As the preferred financial partner of OSU Athletics, the bank also brings the school’s mascot and cheerleaders to bank openings.

In January, Huntington signed a $12 million, 23-year naming rights deal with Franklin County to title Huntington Park, the county-owned home of the Triple A Columbus Clippers scheduled to open in ’08 in downtown Columbus.

Huntington operates more than 380 branches in Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and West Virginia.

How Sponsorship Works At Huntington
Kim Ravenda, Huntington’s CMO, screens and signs off on major ties such as the Blue Jackets and OSU partnerships. The bank funds local deals out of its eight regional offices. Marketing directors in those offices vet proposals; regional presidents sign off.

Although it is encouraging participating in the School Spirit Checks program, corporate does not otherwise provide sponsorship guidelines to the regions, instead letting each office determine what properties to sponsor. “Each of our regional offices has a lot of autonomy when it comes to sponsorship,” Salmons said.

For example, Huntington’s West Michigan office uses sponsorship as part of a larger marketing campaign targeted at women professionals and business owners.

The office last year created the Women’s Football Academy around its partnership with the AFL Grand Rapids Rampage. The bank invited female clients, prospects and employees to learn about the game through an on-field clinic and participation in a flag football game.

Huntington’s regional offices work collaboratively with corporate on its programs. Case in point: The bank’s West Michigan office held a pep rally at its headquarters around this past weekend’s University of Michigan/Ohio State football game.