It's been more than two years since First Alabama Bancshares became Regions Financial Corp., a name change driven by the bank's move into four other southeastern states.

But only last month did Regions drop the First Alabama moniker at its Birmingham-based lead bank.

"First Alabama was a name that we have a vast amount of equity in," said J. Stanley Mackin, Regions' chairman and chief executive. "We've got a lot of emotional-type of attachment. But from a business standpoint, I think it's a good decision."

Consolidation, accelerated by falling barriers to interstate banking, has produced a slew of new bank names in recent years - Regions, FirstMerit, and NationsBank, to name just three. Of course, many venerable names have ended in the graveyard, among them Shawmut and Society.

And proving that turnabout is fair play, Chemical lost its name this spring only a few years after deep-sixing the esteemed Manufacturers Hanover brand.

The changes reflect the wider geographical span of fast-growing institutions that have outgrown the local monikers of predecessor banks. But executives are also working to burnish their identities with tried-and- true marketing and brand-building tricks that have long been used at consumer products companies.

Mr. Mackin said his bank opted for a cautious approach in retiring the "dear old" First Alabama name. Two years ago, advertisements began to note the Regions affiliation.

"We've spent the proper amount of time and, I think, advertising effort and so forth to properly introduce the name," said Mr. Mackin. "It's timely."

The benefits will include a common identity throughout the Southeast, as well as substantial savings in the advertising and marketing budget.

Amy Brinkley, director of marketing at NationsBank Corp. in Charlotte, N.C., noted that blockbuster brand names like Coca-Cola and McDonald's had been developed and nourished for decades.

"Those great brand names didn't happen by accident, nor did they happen just because someone was focused on advertising and creating an image in terms of what the media could put forth," said Ms. Brinkley. "Brand management really is a concept that has to be embraced throughout the entire company. Because, in the end, the brand really is what the customer says the brand is."

The advantages of a single name include the opportunity to gain marketing muscle. NationsBank, for example, spent $40 million to be a sponsor of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

"We felt that was a tremendously powerful way to build a new brand by associating and affiliating with a great institution that shares similar values to our own - teamwork and winning," said Ms. Brinkley.

Indeed, banks - not unlike Nike, Wheaties, and other brands - put a premium on fostering a winning image.

"It's the nature of the company you are surrounding yourself with," said Julia Adamsen, senior vice president of marketing at KeyCorp in Cleveland. "Winners surround themselves with winners, even in imagery and brand creation."

KeyCorp is among a handful of banking companies that sponsor an arena home of a professional sports team. (See story on page 6A.)

But at the same time, it's worth asking: What are banks giving up when they forge a new identity?

"There is absolutely no question that some of the brands of predecessor companies, and many of our predecessor companies, have been great local brands," said Ms. Brinkley of NationsBank, which agreed to buy St. Louis-based Boatmen's Bancshares last summer.

"In many cases, they've had tremendous awareness levels associated with them," she said. "But to continue those brands would really run counter to our longer-term strategies. And we feel very, very good about the development of our brand in such a short period of time."

The NationsBank name was introduced in 1992 after NCNB merged with C&S/Sovran.

"A lot of thought goes into the introduction of the name," said Ms. Brinkley, "and at what intervals we take it another step."

NationsBank, she added, tends to move quickly to establish its presence when it makes an acquisition.

That approach is not without occasional obstacles. Last month, a flutter of protest arose in St. Louis over the fate of the acquired bank's popular advertising icon, a bald-pated spokesman known as the Boatmen's Guy. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch asked readers what they thought; it got nearly 3,000 phone calls and even more letters and electronic and facsimile messages.

NationsBank eventually issued a statement saying that the character would "play an important role in the transition and in future projects."

But other banking giants with long established brand names, notably Chase Manhattan Corp. and BankAmerica Corp., continue to operate large subsidiaries that retain their local identity.

"It's the best of both worlds," said Andrew Keehn, senior vice president of northwest regional marketing at Seafirst Bank, a $17.3 billion-asset subsidiary of BankAmerica. "The Seafirst brand in Washington is a very strong and formidable one. We've been around for over 125 years. We have worked hard at establish the brand and nurturing the brand and want to continue to do that."

Mr. Keehn said there are no plans to trade the Seafirst name for the more widely known Bank of America moniker.

"Bank of America recognizes the importance of the brand as well and feels good about the fact that they can both sort of coexist," said Mr. Keehn.

Officially, however, the subsidiary's name was changed to Bank of America NW this year.

The region that Mr. Keehn oversees includes Alaska and Oregon - where the Bank of America name prevails.

"There is tweaking that needs to go on, as opposed to just having exactly the same thing in five markets or four markets," he said.

Executives at Seafirst, like those at the Houston-based Chase subsidiary, Texas Commerce Bank, have a high level of management control.

"On the retail side, we pretty much keep our autonomy as a brand," said Mr. Keehn. "The association with Bank of America tends to be used to the greatest degree on the wholesale side of the business."

For example, for large commercial accounts, the Seattle bank can tap into Bank of America's international network.

Seafirst is also closely watching another California banking company, Wells Fargo & Co., which has entered Washington through its acquisition of First Interstate Bancorp.

"You've got a California entity that doesn't have much name recognition in Washington coming into the market," said Mr. Keehn. "This is a competitive market."

By continuing to use the Seafirst name for consumer banking, executives said, they can build on positive perceptions that customers hold. But they conceded that their affiliation with BankAmerica precludes making marketing hay out of another out-of-state bank's entering the market.

Nevertheless, banks like Seafirst and Texas Commerce are almost anomalous, the exceptions that prove the rule. For the unmistakable trend among the nation's biggest banks is toward national brand names.

Indeed, said NationsBank's Ms. Brinkley, positioning a brand has become an issue of strategic importance.

"Banks historically didn't think about it that much. And our competitors didn't think about it that much," she said. "Now our competitors are not necessarily in the traditional banking industry. So we have to be thinking about brand very differently than we have in the past."

"Boundaries that are based on geography, or product lines, or channels become quite confusing to a customer," she continued. "Our name says something about our strategy, and our target environment, which is to be a nationwide financial institution."

Bankers nationwide agree. "We feel that the customer will be served more appropriately and more efficiently and a whole lot better with the uniform name," said Regions' Mr. Mackin. "It's truly reflective of what we are. We are a regional bank. We love the name."

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