BankAmerica Corp. and NationsBank Corp. are beginning to tackle one of the toughest challenges posed by their pending merger: what to call the combined bank.
They said when they announced their deal in April that the resulting holding company will be BankAmerica. But the brand the $570 billion-asset institution will use to market its products and services is still undecided.
The banks hired Anspach Grossman Enterprise, a New York corporate identity consulting firm, to help in the process. They also plan to explore alternatives in focus-group interviews with employees and customers.
Each brand has considerable clout but is little recognized in the two banks' respective markets.
"There is no easy answer," said Joseph K. Morford, an analyst with Van Kasper & Co. in San Francisco. "They are trying to come up with a name from which they can build the best brand image while at the same time minimizing consumer confusion and disruption."
The task is even trickier because both names are well suited for the first banking company with branches stretching from ocean to ocean. Some outside observers therefore predict both brands will survive in some form, for example: "NationsBanc Mortgage, a BankAmerica company."
"I think ultimately they are going to transition over to BankAmerica, but without destroying the equity that has been developed in NationsBank's product lines," said Charles B. Wendel, president of Financial Institutions Consulting, New York.
He said NationsBank chief executive officer Hugh L. McColl "understands the value of the BankAmerica name, but he isn't going to let anything undercut the brand power that NationsBank has built up over the past several years."
In most mergers, the acquiring institution stamps its name on the company it is buying. First Interstate Bancorp lost its name to Wells Fargo & Co. and Washington Mutual Inc. erased Great Western Financial Corp. and American Savings Bank.
It is rarely so simple for mergers of equals, as the BankAmerica- NationsBank deal has been billed.
When the combination was announced April 13, the banks said they planned to "converge the brands after careful study."
Creating a new, unique brand would be risky because the company would have to build awareness from scratch among the 29 million households it would serve, not to mention future customers. In addition, the bank would face huge costs to change all signs, advertising, and marketing materials.
"Going to a completely new brand would take an incredible investment, especially for a merger of this size," said Brian C. Hartzer, vice president in First Manhattan Consulting Group's San Francisco office.
"A brand is a promise-it has to mean something valuable to a client," Mr. Hartzer added. "That comes about through a history that demonstrates you are serious and committed."
BankAmerica's name has the much longer history.
It began gathering strength early in this century, the image etched in California lore by the fact that legendary founder A.P. Giannini restored faith and liquidity in the local economy by opening a makeshift office after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
NationsBank was created in 1991 when North Carolina National Bank merged with C&S/Sovran Financial Corp. While NationsBank has made a prodigious marketing push, it is difficult to measure up to a century of history, Mr. Morford said.
"BankAmerica has deep roots, while the Nations name is a recent result of the tremendous consolidation in the Southeast," Mr. Morford said. "Whatever compromise they come up with should keep that fact in mind."
The effort is still in its early stages, according to Lynn Drury, NationsBank's principal corporate affairs officer. Anspach Grossman is poring over all of the data NationsBank and BankAmerica have gathered on their brands to decide if further research is needed, she said. An official at the corporate identity firm declined to be interviewed.
"This is a huge process," said Ms. Drury, who sits on a 12-member team of executives from various business lines at both banks assembled to oversee the process of coming up with a name.