Building a Strategy for Your Rebrand

By Marilyn Kennedy Melia

Bank management won’t embark on extensive rebranding without the certainty that it’s needed. But even once the process has begun, there’s little upfront certainty about what the rebrand will end up looking and feeling like.

The process is introspective, says Josh Mabus, president and CEO of Mabus Agency. It involves asking “what kind of bank are we?”

Rigorous research can uncover what customers, non-customers and employees value about area banks and banking services—usually without identifying the specific bank sponsoring the research. This type of inquiry “will tell you things that you might not realize,” notes Mabus. “It can be like a mirror.”

Some of that self-discovery will typically shape the new brand. For instance, research may reveal that consumers in the market value a banker who helps them find the savings and checking plans that best suit their circumstances. If consumers also give high marks to the rebranding bank for providing advice, those themes will likely influence the new brand message.

But that doesn’t mean management’s own ideas about where the bank should focus aren’t in the mix, says Mabus. If a bank’s insurance subsidiary is profitable, for example, and should grow—that’s a consideration molding the brand messaging.

This article is the third in our exclusive series about rebranding a bank. Click the topic to view the previous articles:

Most businesses enter into a rebranding effort without expecting that it will lead to a new corporate name, notes Dawn Lerman, Fordham University professor and author of “The Language of Branding.” But banks are in a unique position, since so many share the same words in their name, like national, first, savings and federal. At the outset, management may be intent on a new name that distinguishes the bank from the competition.

The accelerated rate of merger and acquisition activity has led some banks to take on a rebrand to eliminate the expense and confusion of having multiple bank names under the same corporate umbrella.

Here we take a look at naming considerations and other key elements in forging a strategy for rebranding:

Thousands of choices are in—and outside of—the dictionary

When Union Bankshares changed its name this year to Atlantic Union Bankshares (holding company for Richmond, Va.-based Atlantic Union Bank), it unified several brands: Access National Bank, Xenith Bank and Middleburg Bank, along with Union Bank and Trust.

John Asbury remembers that when he joined the bank in late 2016, and became CEO in2017, he was not initially worried about the multiple names. That is, not until “the general counsel pointed out to me that the [different]names could pose a problem.”

His concern increased further when a customer told Asbury that he’d thought he had opened an account online with the bank, but mistakenly signed up with another Union Bank—in California. That’s when the downside of having too common a name hit home. Asbury also saw the cost and complexity of maintaining multiple brands in the three mid-Atlantic states it held offices.

But he and his team “didn’t want a synthetic name” for their brand—a made-up word not found in the dictionary—as is common in the pharmaceutical business and other industries.

Mabus notes that while there’s nothing inherently wrong with synthetic names, there’s also no taboo against honoring the personal preferences of the decision makers.

Indeed, thousands of words can be found in the dictionary—the Oxford English Dictionary contains more than 170,000 words currently in use, plus tens of thousands more that are obsolete or derivative. But as Lerman points out, most people use just a fraction of them in conversation—about 2,000 in a typical week.

Asbury remembers that he and others on the rebrand team reviewed hundreds of choices, and liked the “three-pillar strategy of Atlantic Union Bank, because it describes where we are, who we are, and what we are.”

Discovering what’s in a name can underpin strategy

In selecting any business name, Lerman advocates for a thorough audit of all possible meanings attached to each word and/or collection of words. She even advises considering the sounds contained in each syllable and word.

When Jim Walker came to Blackshear, Ga.-based PrimeSouth Bank as CEO four years ago, he immediately thought the brand’s colors and logo “did not represent an innovative and sophisticated look.” He also didn’t think the brand elements reflected the bank’s evolving product offerings, or how PrimeSouth employees were “high performing individuals who hold themselves to excellence.”

Working with both a brand consultant and a graphic design firm, PrimeSouth was open to changing the bank name, not just the logo.

But in conducting the type of audit Lerman recommends, Walker says he and his team realized “what a dynamic word ‘prime’ is.”

Prime is one of those rare words that can be used as a noun, adjective and verb. As such, Walker says the existing name is a perfect match for the bank’s dynamism—which includes plans to expand into other southern states. The word inspired a new logo, a capital ‘P’ encased in a triangle, as well as the tagline, “Find Your Prime.”

Name, message, products and service join together

First Horizon, the new brand uniting First Tennessee and Capital Bank, was only decided upon “after a months-long, in-depth period of customer research and self-discovery,” says Dawn Morris, EVP and chief digital banking and marketing officer at First Horizon.

Not all new brands are brand new. First Horizon has been the name of the holding company for the two banks. It was included among the possibilities for the rebrand because it fit the basic criteria of not being identified with a specific geographic area, Morris says.

When research subjects were presented with name choices, “First Horizon emerged as a clear consensus, two to one, in fact, for fit and trustworthiness.”

On its website, First Horizon explains the change, “You want a financial institution that understands your goals, like horizons, are uniquely personal.”

To translate that promise into a customer reality, First Horizon developed a “customer lab” to identify where and how the bank can do a better job of delivering that brand promise before the roll-out this fall. For instance, since many customers didn’t realize the bank’s app allowed for person-to-person payments, employees are instructed to mention that capability at appropriate times. A customer who says she is withdrawing savings to pay her son’s college tuition, for instance, can be reminded that she can use the app if her son needs emergency funds.

Marilyn Kennedy Melia is a banking and personal finance writer based in Chicago. Email: [email protected].