Time to Bank on a Name Change?

By Carol Gilhawley

Banking is one industry long associated with stability and trust—and often the names of banks have reflected this conservative way of thinking. However, in this day and age with more savvy mobile banking consumers in the mix, having a plain old vanilla banking name may not always be a recipe for success.

According to research by Hunter Young, senior vice president of marketing and analytics at First Bank in North Carolina, 62% of banks share a common word in their name. Excluding the word bank, two out of three banks use these same five words: state (18%), first (15%), national (12%), trust (10%) and savings (9%).

“I think what it boils down to is the traditional mindset of the board and senior leaders,” Young said. “They think they have brand equity in a community. This is probably true with their older customers—but their younger customers could care less. For banks that want to grow, then changing their name warrants further talk.”

In a time of mergers and acquisitions, some bank leaders may wonder why they should go through the headache and expense of changing a bank’s name if it’s going to be sold in five years anyway. “I suggest you brand yourself now with a name that is palatable to your community and then proceed with your M&A activity,” Young advised. The irony’s not lost on him that he works for First Bank. “My research is a passive aggressive way to get my own bank name changed!”

Several factors could determine whether a bank should change its name.

For example:

  • The geographic footprint has gotten bigger.
  • It has outgrown its original mandate, in that it’s not just a savings and trust or a savings and loan anymore.
  • Its brand is getting confused with banks of a similar name.

“If you’ve done some surveying and you’ve got a lot of brand equity in a market, with 80%-90% of brand ID, then you should stay with your name,” said John Oxford, director of corporate communications and external affairs at Renasant Bank in Tupelo, Mississippi. “But as a marketer, I would say if you’ve got generic words like first, state or national in your name then you’re ripe for renaming your bank. If the board can stomach it and you’ve got capital behind it, then go ahead and rebrand,” he added.

It needs to be done strategically too. Oxford joined Renasant Bank in 2005—the year the 100-year-old People’s Bank and Trust Company lost the battle to keep its name. It acquired Renasant, which was smaller but had a more unique name. “We took that name to set ourselves apart and make our bank stand out in a crowded marketplace,” Oxford explained. “There were other banks called People’s so there was some market confusion.”

The rebranding, in combination with multiple acquisitions, has also paid off: assets have grown from $2 billion in 2005 to $9 billion today.

Generic names, in general, are a poor way to raise awareness for banks that are struggling to differentiate themselves as it is. Having a generic bank name in today’s digital world doesn’t help either—especially when searching for a bank online.

With all the moving parts involved in a rebranding, some banks take the plunge and change their names—while other banks choose not to. Here are the experiences of a few of them.

The origins of Origin Bank.

When Origin Bank initiated its name change from Community Trust Bank, there were more than 236 bank branches in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas that included either “community” or “trust” in their names.

“Some of our customers were even downloading the wrong bank app on their phones and getting frustrated because they couldn’t log in,” said Michelle Allen-Cassel, senior vice president and marketing director. Community Trust Bank was a century old, Louisiana-chartered bank that rebranded to Origin Bank in October 2015 at a cost of $4 million.”

“From a big picture standpoint, it was a challenge to find a name that truly and uniquely represented who we were as a bank, yet also paid homage to our past,” Allen-Cassel explained. The branding team ploughed through 500 names to come up with the right one. To help, they brought in an experienced design agency called Adrenaline from Atlanta that ran ideation sessions to devise a brand position called “unique from within.” The team, Allen-Cassel said, did a great job preparing employees and training them. The agency filmed an employee video and carried out culture training for customer contact staff.

“We knew the brand would be talked about at the ballpark and in the grocery store, and we wanted to spread the same message on social media too. That was key to being successful,” she noted. The planning process took 18 months until launch, and involved details such as renaming signage, customer communication, letterhead, and website. The brand team included eight people from the marketing department, culture and strategies division, and a social media director.

They tracked their digital efforts, and saw customer engagement spike after they posted a video on YouTube. An email announcing the name change was opened by 50.4% of their customers. They had 6,575 followers on Facebook at the beginning of October 2015 and ended the year with 8,500.

“We previously had a name that we couldn’t own or trademark, and our customer experience was in jeopardy, “Allen-Cassel said. “So, we trademarked this name and now we’re the only Origin Bank in the United States.” Assets have also grown from $3.8 billion in October 2015 to over $4 billion today.

From Tri County to beyond.

Expansion was the reason Community Bank of Tri County changed its name in 2014 to Community Bank of the Chesapeake. “We expanded to another state and another county, so the name Tri County no longer worked for us,” said Diane Hicks, director of marketing. The $1.2 billion-asset bank has 12 branches in two states: Maryland and Virginia.

The bank’s website and logo already used the initials CBTC so they came up with a new name that still incorporated those letters. “We wanted to keep our initials and we didn’t want to drastically change because we had some brand value,” Hicks noted. The triangle in Tri County’s original logo morphed into a sailboat and they kept the original colors. Becoming Community Bank of the Chesapeake was a “natural fit for our geographical region by the water of the Chesapeake Bay,” Hicks explained.

Yet, the bank still had to reprint collateral, change ATM and branch signage, devise new letterhead, business cards and brochures. Rather than rebrand in stages, they did it all at once so the new branding was consistent.

When Five Cents proves to be priceless.

Newburyport Five Cents Savings Bank was originally set up as a children’s bank for young people to save money for the future. “Money reserved for a rainy and stormy day is better than sweet meals or other luxuries injurious to health and morals,” the founders wrote on July 12, 1854.

Though the idea of a Five Cents bank may seem antiquated today, “we’ll never get rid of our name,” said Alysa Morse, the bank’s marketing director. “It’s part of our heritage.” Today, the bank still offers children a savings promotion. If a child opens an account with $5 the bank will match it with an additional $5.

Over the past thirty years, however, the bank has condensed its name to Newburyport Bank and redesigned its logo to emphasize those two words rather than Five Cents Savings. It has been around so long in Massachusetts and New Hampshire that “we have a relatable brand presence,” Morse added. “We’ve evolved to become a bank of the community and we donate a significant amount of money back into the community.”

An American evolution.

When the $1.3 billion-asset American Trust and Savings Bank in Dubuque, Iowa, was originally chartered in 1911 it was called German American Savings Bank. However, in 1918, during World War One, shareholders came under pressure to eliminate the word German and it became American Trust and Savings.

“Over the years we found we had good brand recognition in a small community,” said Peggy Hudson, executive vice president of marketing. But, that strategy changed in the late 1980s when the bank shortened its name to American Trust. There were no acquisitions, but the bank expanded and opened several new branches bringing its total to 12.

“We felt the words American Trust didn’t give any indication of what we do,” Hudson explained. “So, over the past ten years—on our signage, at our branches, and on our ATMs—we’ve added the words ‘Bank & ATM.’ We also purchased the domain .bank so now we have the website AmericanTrust.bank.”

This facelift has worked with minimal investment. “American Trust and Savings Bank was too stodgy, it was hard to package and the wording was too long,” Hudson adds. “American Trust works well for us.”

Carol Gilhawley is a business and financial industry journalist based in the Greater New York City area.

 

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