Many banks are asking whether there is any value in having the word "bank" in their brand name anymore. They may be asking the wrong question.

After years of shunning bricks and mortar, bank executives may have to rediscover the value of their branches. But now a branch can be anything from a kiosk to a megastore.

Regardless of how sophisticated an ATM, a call center, or a Web site may be, they are not substitutes for customers' being in a branch, experiencing the brand and building personal relationships.

Taking a lesson from brands that dominate their markets, such as Nike and Disney, banks can establish branches that, like flagship stores, can forge an enduring link to their customers. Customers may not visit as often, but the power of a branch to symbolize a banking brand promise is undiminished, even for a virtual bank.

If you're not called a bank anymore, it could be essential to have a branch to symbolize stability and security as no print or electronic communication can. Perhaps it acts only as a strategically placed billboard, but the branch has an important role to play.

While some bankers equate fewer branches and less front-line staff - and more electronic transactions - with enhanced profits, this strategy might derail longer-term growth. Banks must come to understand that they cannot simply cost-cut their way into the future. Many are realizing that, from a brand building perspective, there is a point where branchless banking is counterproductive.

Those that continue to use "bank" as part of their brand are finding themselves redefining its meaning as banks redefine who they are. The brand, after all, is the institution's reputation. Bank executives are looking for greater flexibility in the permissions their customers give them. They need to change the perception of their brand. In parallel, they need to change the customer's experience.

The use of geography in a bank brand name has become limiting. The future of banking is borderless, both geographically and in terms of service offerings. Cobranding with traditional competitors is becoming commonplace. Worrying about competing with nontraditional megabrands like Microsoft is an occupational hazard of senior executives.

What bank branches offer is a powerful physical presence in a community, whether it is Wall Street or Main Street. This doesn't mean recreating the bank branch of the Fifties. Whether the brand retains "bank" or jettisons it, it means imagining a new, consultation-focused, technologically supported customer center that is as much a brand symbol as a working environment.

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