Industries

A bank by any other name would be more popular

Picking new ID is nearly always met with scorn

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Print this page by M.J. McAteer
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When BB&T and SunTrust decided to merge, they wanted their combined institution to have a new name. Thus, a consultant was hired, focus groups were formed and, after what the banks described as a “rigorous, data-driven, brand-development process,” the new name was announced: Truist Financial.

The name-shaming on social media commenced forthwith.

“Completely underwhelming,” “blah” and “stupid” were typical of the tweets proliferating on Twitter. One commenter complained that Truist sounded “like a medication to treat eczema,” while another said it would be a suitable name for an artificial sweetener.

Such blowback is to be expected, says Kelly O’Keefe, a professor of creative brand management at Virginia Commonwealth University. Back in 1998, the new Crestar Bank name was mocked for sounding like a toothpaste, and people weren’t even sure how to pronounce Verizon when Bell Atlantic and GTE picked the neologism for their merged identity in 2000. Philip Morris Companies met with similar derision when it rebranded itself with the benevolent-sounding-but-made-up moniker Altria in 2003, a change critics said was intended to distance itself from the negatives associated with its cigarette business.

“An unfamiliar name can seem a little weird and nonintuitive at first,” the professor says, and he can think of a couple new brands that never did find their legs, such as the Volkswagen Phaeton, a 2002 luxury sedan named after a type of horse-drawn carriage. (How the heck do you even pronounce that, anyway?) The popular Chevy Nova found its name to be problematic as well, when it entered Hispanic markets: “No va” means “no go” in Spanish – “not exactly what you want in a car,” O’Keefe remarks dryly.

Mostly, though, familiarity eventually makes the heart grow fonder. For example, no one questions why a global tech company should be named after a fruit, or why an e-tail giant is named for a river full of predatory fish. Furthermore, other banks that have opted for made-up names, such as Comerica (formerly Detroit Bank & Trust) and Synovus (formerly CB&T Bancshares), were also mocked before the public settled into acceptance.

That said, O’Keefe is not a huge fan of the Truist label.

“Trust is not something you say about yourself,” he says. “It is something others say about you. In the long run, I don’t think that it will serve them well.” 

Jacob Leenerts, the creative director of the business-naming consulting firm Naminium, is no fan of the Truist brand, either. The “-ist” ending “doesn’t generally have a good connotation,” he says – think “racist” and “misogynist.” A fabricated name also can “be antithetical to gaining people’s trust,” he adds, trust being the gold standard in the banking industry.

When Atlantic Union Bank rebranded earlier this year following its $500 million, all-stock acquistion of Reston-based Access National Corp., its leadership had a few goals for its new name. First and foremost, it had to be made up of “actual words that could be found in a dictionary,” says Atlantic Union CEO John Asbury.

The bank wanted to keep the Union brand due to its history (it’s descended from Union Bank & Trust, formed in 1921) and brand recognition but it also needed to differentiate itself from a host of similarly named banks across the nation. It chose the word “Atlantic” due to its Mid-Atlantic positioning with branch locations in Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina.

“And ‘Bank? ’ That’s what we do. We’re a bank, ” says Atlantic Union President Maria P. Tedesco. “Those three pillars of the name signify what it is. … It’s who we are. We’re not trying to be anything different. Why would we? … We’re not trying to be trendy. ”

Adds Asbury: “We manage people’s money. It’s serious business. We’re not an app on someone’s iPhone. This is a federally insured bank. … We’re very real; we’re authentic. What you see is what you get. ”

Regardless, made-up names such as Truist have proliferated in recent decades — partly out of necessity.

With so many companies launching every week, it’s difficult to find a name that has not already been trademarked, and, while O’Keefe can’t warmly embrace the appellation Truist, he thinks the bank itself should be fine.

“It’s a good company,” he says. “I hope it prevails.” 





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