Beyond 'Truist': A brief history of unusual bank brands

Twitter wasn’t around in 1982 when Detroit Bank & Trust was rebranded as Comerica, but if it had been, would Michiganders have used the social media platform to poke fun at the name in much the same way Americans did last week to mock the new name of the combined BB&T and SunTrust?

The new moniker, of course, is Truist Bank, and like Comerica, Truist is a made-up word meant to herald in a new era.

Detroit Bank & Trust had designs on expanding well outside of Michigan and needed a name that was not so geographically limiting. BB&T and SunTrust are rebranding because they are billing their combination as a true merger of equals and keeping one name over the other could potentially undermine that message.

The overwhelming reaction on social media, however, was that the name Truist — a mash-up of "trust" and "true" — sounds forced and that the merging companies would have been better off choosing a name that is an actual, you know, word.

On Twitter, a typical comment went something like, “I’m no branding expert, but that is the ‘worstest’ thing they could come up with.”

Still, the name may seem clunky and unpronounceable now, but history shows, that at some point, people will get used to it and perhaps even embrace it, just like they have Comerica, Synovus and other synthetic names that didn't exactly roll off the tongue at first. Verizon is a made-up word — created in 2000 when Bell Atlantic and GTE merged — and it’s one of the world’s most valuable brands.

The financial blogger Julian Hebron made a great point when he wrote that people might actually like the name if Truist were a startup, and not the new moniker of what will be the nation’s sixth-largest bank. Varo, Chime, Monzo and Revolut are all names of fintech upstarts that “you’d rip, too, if they came from big banks,” Hebron wrote.

Here are some examples of other banks that rebranded with not so conventional names.

Comerica Park, home of Major League Baseball's Detroit Tigers.
Detroit Bank & Trust becomes Comerica
By the early 1980s, after decades of rolling up smaller banks in Michigan, Detroit Bank & Trust began eyeing expansion in other, faster-growing markets, and it needed a new name that reflected its broader ambitions.

The name it chose was Comerica, and the bank’s first move was into Florida, where it opened a handful of branches to better serve its older customers who retired to or spent winters in the Sunshine State. It expanded into Texas in the late 1980s, California in the early 1990s and Arizona in the 2000s, and in 2007 it relocated its headquarters from Detroit to Dallas.

"Today, a significant percentage of Comerica's earnings is generated in the Texas, Arizona, California and Florida markets,” Chairman and CEO Ralph Babb said at the time. “Moving our corporate headquarters to Dallas will give us greater proximity to all of our markets, and the additional resources in these markets will lead to accelerated growth for Comerica.

Though the $71 billion-asset bank only operates in a few states, its brand is well known nationwide largely through its naming rights deal with Major League Baseball’s Detroit Tigers. The team’s stadium has been named Comerica Park since it opened in 2000.
Synods Financial building.
CB&T Bancshares becomes Synovus
In 1989, CB&T Bancshares was the holding company for Columbus Bank & Trust and other small banks in Georgia, Florida and Alabama, and like Comerica it wanted a name that was less tied to geography. It came up with Synovus, an entirely new word derived from words "synergy" and "novus," which is Latin for new.

It was such an unusual name that in its initial print ads Synovus felt compelled to help people with the pronunciation. (“Pronounced sĭ – nō’ vŭs.”)

Chris Marinac, a longtime bank analyst in Atlanta, told American Banker that the name raised eyebrows at first but then caught on pretty quickly.

It didn’t quite become a household name because Synovus was, for decades, primarily the name of only the holding company, but most people in the communities it served at least knew it was the name behind local banks such as Columbus Bank & Trust, Bank of North Georgia and Sea Island Bank.

The 30-year-old name is far more ubiquitous now: Last year, the $47 billion-asset company consolidated its 26 separately branded banks under a single identity, Synovus Bank.
Synchrony Logo
GE Capital Retail Finance becomes Synchrony
Unlike Truist, Comerica and Synovus, "synchrony" is an actual word, albeit one people don’t use very often. We’re far more likely to say "in sync" than "in synchrony."

Synchrony Financial also didn’t replace a name that was all that well-known, let alone beloved. GE Capital Retail Bank was primarily an issuer of store-branded credit cards and was therefore not all that visible to customers.

The rebranding took place in 2014, coinciding with the card issuer’s break from its parent company, General Electric, and subsequent initial public offering.

The business model is still largely the same, though Synchrony is far more focused on deposit-gathering for its online bank and therefore has sought to raise its profile considerably through advertising and marketing partnerships. The strategy seems to be working: Since the name change took effect five years ago, total deposits have increased by more than 140% to $68 billion at March 31, according to data from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
This photo that was taken shortly after the name change to Amegy Bank from Southwest Bank of Texas  in 2005.
Southwest Bank of Texas becomes Amegy Bank
There was a simple reason why Southwest Bank of Texas decided in 2005 that it needed a new name: At the time, there were no fewer than 12 banks in the Lone Star State with “Southwest” in their names, and banking rules prevented it from using the name it markets where it had made acquisitions and Southwest was already taken.

After consulting with focus groups, it settled on “Amegy,” a combination of “America” and “energy” that its CEO at the time, Paul Murphy, said “reflected the energy of the American people.” The name was also a nod to the fact that Texas is a top energy-producing state.

Like Truist, the name had its initial detractors. One branding expert said it too closely resembled the names of two companies — the consumer products firm Amway and the Texas energy firm Dynegy — that at one time or another had been accused of financial fraud and suffered serious reputational harm as a result.

Not long after the name change took effect, Amegy was sold to Zions Bancorp. of Salt Lake City, though it still operates under the Amegy brand. And if Texans had any objections to the name initially, they have long since gotten over it. For a number of years, Amegy was ranked among the top banks in Texas for customer satisfaction by J.D. Power.
Axos Bank - POP19 - Logo
Bank of Internet USA becomes Axos Bank
Bank of Internet USA was a perfectly fine name for a direct bank that gathered its deposits online, but it was a bit limiting for a company that had broader ambitions.

In 2011, it changed its name to BofI Federal Bank to somewhat distance itself from its Internet-only persona, though its direct bank continued to do business as Bank of Internet.

Then late last year, it rebranded again, changing its bank name to Axos Bank and its holding company, BofI Holding, to Axos Financial. CEO Greg Garrabrants gave little detail on the significance of Axos — also not an actual word — other than to say it’s a better fit for a company that has evolved from a digital-only bank to a full-service financial firm that now offers robo-advisory services, clearing for broker-dealers, as well as deposit and loan products for individuals and businesses.

“Our new brand better reflects the diversity of our existing businesses and aligns more closely with our strategic vision to utilize technology to differentiate and personalize financial services to our diverse client base,” Garrabrants said at the time.