First Financial
First Financial

To get customers to come to your bank, it helps if they know who you are. That's why building First Financial's brand is the key driver to its growth, according to CEO Claude Davis, who started emphasizing awareness when he got the job in 2004.

His efforts appear to be working: According to company research, First Financial has increased its brand awareness among people in its hometown of Cincinnati, from just 5% in 2005 to 50% this year.

Customers respond to the bank's image, Davis says, which is that of a Midwestern community-minded bank: "I think this crisis has brought everybody back to saying what really is profitable over the long term are those core clients in local communities."

First Financial has been profitable for 83 consecutive quarters and has had enough capital on hand to buy several other banks during the recession. In fact, it's still making acquisitions. Just this past quarter, First Financial bought 16 branches from Ohio-based Liberty Savings Bank.

The secret to having enough money to make those purchases is managing a wide range of basic assets, according to Davis. Leaders need enough different kinds of businesses to weather a cyclical downturn without getting tangled up in obscure financial services they don't understand. Stay simple and keep your books clean, he says, and people will respond to the brand.

Last updated September 13 2011: 8:10 AM ET