Some banks have had the same name for well over a century. This projected the stature of the organization to the communities and potential customers.
Name changes now take place with regularity. (You may remember the cartoon of the bank sign with three lines: time, temperature, and todays name.)
Names have often signified the basic goal and culture of the bank. The best examples are the mutual savings banks established as charities back when commercial banks would not accept deposits from small customers. This is how we got banks with names like Emigrant Industrial, Seamans Bank for Savings, and Dime telling everyone just whom this bank was targeting.
Some proposed mergers have been called off over nothing more than which banks name would survive.
And then there is Fifth Third Bank, a combination of Third National and Fifth National. The apocryphal story is that since they merged during Prohibition, they could not use the logical name Third Fifth because that would have sounded too much like an order at a liquor store.
Some banks have had bad luck with their names. One example was Hamburg Savings Bank, which had offices in Jewish neighborhoods of New York City. During and after World War II, few Jewish people wanted to bank at an institution with a German name.
And sometimes banks made name changes that brought negative public reaction. Two come to mind.
First, Mellon Bank of Pittsburgh bought Girard Bank in Philadelphia and changed its name to Mellon East. This was resented, as Stephen Girard was a local hero.
Second, Bank of New York purchased National Community Bank of New Jersey and changed its name to Bank of New York, National Community division. This did not go over well with loyal New Jersey residents.
There was also a start-up New York bank that took the name Womens Bank. This made men feel unwanted, nor did many of them want to use Womens Bank checks.
And though banks may want to keep their names, sometimes they have no choice. The 114-year-old State Bank of Colwich, Kan., recently changed its name to Legacy Bank, since its expansion means that it no longer serves only Colwich.
A number of bank holding companies have tried to carry water on both shoulders by keeping their affiliates independent with their former names intact only to find that this doesnt work. As long as all banks are going to have a standard policy and, hopefully, a standard culture, it is almost impossible to let the public know that people are equally welcome and services are the same at all branches unless they have the same name.
And this brings both an opportunity and a challenge. If there is a common name for the entire organization, then good service and friendliness in any office generate a good reputation for the whole bank. But if one office is a bad apple and has a poor attitude toward its customers, this breeds a poor reputation that can hurt all the other banks of the holding company or offices of the branch network.
Mr. Nadler, an American Banker contributing editor, is a professor of finance at Rutgers University Gradute School of Management in Newark, N.J.