Name changes are never an easy decision.

Rebranding can take time and cause confusion. Marketing is often needed. Signs must be replaced, among other things.

Still, banks looking to become regional players may want to consider a new brand, especially when their current name has a geographic reference, industry experts said.

Brands tied to specific towns or counties can be limiting, requiring management teams to explain to potential investors and clients how a name doesn’t represent the breadth of a bank's operations. There is a balancing act: Executives must be careful informing existing customers that a rebranded bank will otherwise remain the same.

“It is a question that every bank with a location in its name ultimately confronts,” said Steven Reider, founder of the consulting firm Bancography.

SB One Bancorp in Rockaway, N.J., is a recent example of a bank that has rebranded to reflect its ambitions.

Formerly known as Sussex Bancorp, the $1.4 billion-asset company is based in Sussex County, N.J., which is roughly an hour west of New York. The company had already expanded beyond its original market, adding branches as far away as Astoria, N.Y.

Anthony Labozzetta, SB One's president and CEO, would spend the first part of investor presentations explaining that the company was already in many higher-growth markets despite its name. Last year's purchase of Community Bank of Bergen County added three branches outside of Sussex County and created the impetus to rebrand.

“It was really imperative to change a name that didn’t connect with customers,” Labozzetta said. While still fond of the old name, he said executives began to wonder if they could make emotional connections with new customers using a name associated with a location.

That struggle is real, said Robert Kafafian, president and CEO of the Kafafian Group. He recalled a case where a geographically named bank struggled with an out-of-market expansion — all because of a football rivalry.

“That’s how parochial some people get,” said Kafafian, whose firm has worked with SB One. “Whenever a bank’s name is geographically specific ... there comes a time when that name can be restrictive.”

SB One is just the latest bank to rebrand as it outgrew its home turf.

North Jersey Community Bancorp became ConnectOne Bancorp in 2013 in a move designed to better reflect the culture and values of “connecting our clients to their futures, source of funding, to other clients so they can help each other,” said Frank Sorrentino, the company's chairman and CEO.

“When we evaluated the name and the personality of this organization, we zeroed in on what we thought this company represented, and therefore the name,” Sorrentino said.

The $5.1 billion-asset ConnectOne has also expanded beyond its legacy markets, adding a branch in New York and opening a loan production office on Long Island. Though Sorrentino didn’t believe a name would radically influence a customer’s decision to join a certain bank, the ConnectOne brand helped eliminate confusion about the markets it served.

“You don’t want people to have to ask six questions about whether they can do business with you,” Sorrentino said. “That’s not a good conservation to have.”

SB One faced similar questions from investors.

Joseph Fenech, an analyst at Hovde Group who traveled with Labozzetta a few years ago for a roadshow, said he remembered investors questioning the CEO about the Sussex brand. The new name is “more indicative of where they intend to go as more of a regional play," Fenech added.

At the same time, Fenech said, a rebranded effort resonates more with customers.

Banks must take care when rebranding to make sure clients realize that the bank hasn’t fundamentally changed, Kafafian said. He recalled serving on the board of a Pennsylvania company that wanted to work with a local bank but initially passed on one that had recently changed its name, believing incorrectly that it had been acquired.

To avoid confusion, SB One began informing customers of the new name earlier this year through direct mail, pop-up announcements on its website and email blasts. It also hosted ribbon-cutting events at branches last month to celebrate the change.

To be sure, there are some positives tied to names with geographic tilts, industry experts said. If something “denotes more than geographic reach, but a way of life,” then that could work well in a name, Sorrentino said.

Taking a name from a wealthy area can conjure images of success that might be good to be associated with a financial institution, Reider said. For example, Bryn Mawr Bank shares its name with an affluent Philadelphia suburb.

As the world becomes more digital, people may be less concerned about a location in a company’s name, Reider added.

SB One’s new name incorporates initials — S from Sussex and B from Community Bank of Bergen County — from the company's predecessor banks. The word “one” signifies that the companies are now a single entity, a concept that could be appealing to future merger partners, Labozzetta said.

More deals are possible, especially around New York, including parts of Long Island and northern New Jersey, Labozzetta said. However, he emphasized that SB One is mainly focused on organic growth.

“I don’t want the world to think I’m on an M&A kick,” Labozzetta added. “We aren’t looking to buy another bank and cut everyone just so I can say my assets are bigger. I'm looking for people as well as assets and deposits.”

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Jackie Stewart

Jackie Stewart covers community banks and mergers and acquisitions for American Banker.