When it comes to bank signs, some cities prefer wood. In other places, only certain colors will do.
Neon? Forget about it.
Most banks think their branding problems are over when a merger is approved and a name and logo are settled on. But replacing signs at hundreds-or even thousands-of branches turns out to be more than a technical afterthought: Many municipalities and private developers have firm rules about how signs should look and what size they should be.
Merged institutions consider it a point of pride and a sound business move to replace signs in one swoop, but mercurial regulations can interfere with the uniformity of the brand message.
"If the shopping center where your branch is located has all red signs, and ours is green, the mall's landlord might say, 'Sorry, your sign has to be red,'" said Dan J. Lewandowski, director of facilities at California Federal Bank, which bought Glendale Federal Bank last year.
Mr. Lewandowski said Cal Fed, a $56 billion-asset thrift based in San Francisco, had to replace roughly 1,500 signs when it took over 183 Glen Fed branches throughout the state. Some branches were leased, meaning the landlord's whims mattered as much as municipal code nuances.
Bankers say it is easy enough to accept the cost of replacing so many signs, but other stipulations are harder to swallow. Washington Mutual- which uses blue, white, and marigold as its signature colors-was told by the design review board of Palo Alto, Calif., that a certain branch's signs could only be in green.
The thrift faced similar problems in Florida, where signs at its branches must be bronze-colored. Perhaps the biggest challenge came from the city of Tiburon, Calif., which allowed Washington Mutual to install only wooden signs.
"In cities with a certain level of income, they believe they have a certain image or feel to maintain," said Fred Hosseini, a sign consultant hired by Washington Mutual. "They worry that we'll put in a big revolving, flashing sign that won't fit" with local tastes.
Mr. Hosseini, whose firm is called Adimpact, has worked for the Seattle- based thrift during three acquisitions, most recently on its purchase of 162 Home Savings of America branches. He says it is important for institutions to "go with the flow" by honoring aesthetic requests from communities they are entering.
"We don't want to be this big institution from Seattle that says, 'This is the way it will be,'" Mr. Hosseini said.
Each town or city has specific regulations and codes regarding sign size. Some communities-usually more affluent ones-also have design boards that police the local architecture. If a branch is in a designated historic district-which abound in such cities as Boston and New York-there are further signage hurdles.
Depending on the town, the size and depth of a company's name on a building can be regulated. Illuminated signs may not be allowed within 100 feet of residences. In any location, there may be picky landlords who disagree with color schemes or shoddy workmanship by contractors.
"Every building seems to be located in a municipality that has different and specific rules about signage," said Robert G. Sarver, chairman and chief executive officer of California Bank and Trust.
Mr. Sarver's institution changed its name from Sumitomo Bank California after it was acquired last year by Zions Bancorp. About 50 signs needed changing, he said.
For easier transitions, many banks and thrifts have been putting up new signs well before conversions, and wrapping them with covers that bear the original name. On the day accounts are switched, the temporary covers are removed.
Despite advance preparation, Cal Fed is still putting out a few fires, Mr. Lewandowski said.
"There are a few places where the signs aren't exactly straight, or some of the holes from the old signs need better patching," he said. "It's a tremendous amount of work."
Conflicting signage rules are a nightmare for bank marketing and facilities departments, but a boon for another industry.
"Mergers sure have been very good to the sign business," said Richard Wells, owner of Real Signs and Lighting in Santa Rosa, Calif. "We've been able to buy new and better equipment and hire more people because of all the signs we've changed at bank branches."
Converting signs at a single branch typically costs $10,000 to $15,000, Mr. Wells said. The merger wave among financial institutions has boosted annual sales at Real Signs by 20%, he added.
Mr. Wells offered his banking resume: His small company has built and installed signs for Union Bank of California, which resulted from the 1996 merger of Union Bank and Bank of California. It changed signs at American Savings Bank branches twice, once when the institution tacked on the word "bank," and again after it was acquired in 1996 by Washington Mutual. His company also converted local Home Savings branches after they were bought by Washington Mutual.
Sign makers say big mergers mean big headaches, because banks always want an immediate turnaround.
"They love to close the old bank one day, and open the next day as a new one," said Ralph Cundiff Jr., vice president of Ad Art Electronic Sign Corp. of Stockton, Calif. "They want to unveil a whole new identity on a very large scale and a very tight time schedule."
Mr. Cundiff said his firm derives 20% of its business from the banking industry, working with Bank of America Corp., Wells Fargo & Co., and others. Competition for bank business is intense among sign makers, he said, and banks are aware of this.
"They know how to use their purchasing power to their advantage," Mr. Cundiff said. "Banks are consolidating to save costs, so why would they turn around and overpay for signage?"
With the pace of mergers still swift, signage considerations are likely to continue as a concern for banks. Mr. Sarver of California Bank and Trust suggested a solution: "Signs made of Velcro."