Hard sell ahead for BB&T-SunTrust as ‘Truist’ lands with a thud

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Now the hard work begins for the architects of the new "Truist Financial" brand.

Truist was far from an immediate hit on social media, with many ridiculing it as looking like a typo. But while BB&T and SunTrust Banks may have to take some flak in the short term, the initial tweetstorm ultimately may not matter, several branding experts told American Banker right after the name was unveiled Wednesday.

The name is short and unique and pays homage to both companies, without favoring one over the other. It also plays on two words with positive connotations — trust and true — that any banker would be happy to associate with their brand. What ultimately makes the difference will be how the two companies sell the name, the experts said.

“I think it will hit them initially not well, and then it will grow on people," said Gina Bleedorn, chief experience officer at Adrenaline, an Atlanta marketing agency. "SunTrust and BB&T will need to put the right brand story behind it, and they can make that happen in the right way.”

“In a name change, especially one with this type of visibility, it is a very, very difficult task because it’s incredibly subjective and the landscape is just so crowded," she continued. "They are trying to carve out the path of least resistance here, and I think they are ultimately hitting on what’s important.”

Both banks have stressed that their deal, the largest bank combination in over a decade, would be a merger of equals, and keeping one name over the other would undermine that message. Executives at each bank tried to come up with a combination of both their names but quickly abandoned that approach.

Speaking recently at a financial services conference in New York, SunTrust CEO Bill Rogers said, “I can tell you every combination of SunTrust and BB&T you can imagine.”

Ultimately, they decided to take a word they both had in common, trust, and inserted an “i” into the middle of it.

“The name is a connotation as opposed to a description,” said Roger Beahm, a marketing professor at Wake Forest University and founding executive director at the Wake Forest Center for Retail Innovation. “It is ownable because it is unique. But there's an education that has to take place with any brand that's a connotation. That's where building brand equity comes into play.”

The two banks will have their work cut out for them in the months ahead. They will need to tell a compelling story behind the new brand, and they will need to back up those positive connotations with solid products and services, according to the experts. They will also need to familiarize consumers upfront about the spelling and pronunciation.

A few branding experts who spoke to American Banker acknowledged that they were not immediately crazy about the name, but they also stressed that Truist will ultimately be what the bankers make of it.

The main benefit of the new name is that the companies will get to define it for themselves, said Steven Reider, president of the marketing and branch planning adviser Bancography. Saucony is also a made-up word for an athletic shoe and apparel retailer, and one that’s often mispronounced, but runners still know what it is and what it stands for.

“If you invest it in a proposition that is so superior, be it product or service or pricing, then the name blends into the background and becomes a word that just rolls off the tongue,” Reider said.

The banks will also need to get ahead of any associations with either tryst or truant, two words with negative connotations, said Douglas Strickler, CEO of the advertising firm HOT° INC.

“When you use words like true or trust then you have absolutely got to deliver that in every way,” he said.

They should also be mindful of addressing challenges with pronunciation of the new name, Adrenaline’s Bleedorn said.

“I don’t think that’s an insurmountable challenge, but it’s one they’ll need to address in their communications, and it’s one they can probably have fun with addressing in audio media,” she said.

The companies hired Interbrand, a New York unit of Omnicom Group, for research, brand positioning and naming services. They also enlisted the expertise of employees from both banks’ marketing, digital and client experience functions, and consulted customers in the process.

Executives have not yet revealed the new logo, typography or visual identity that will be associated with the new brand.

BB&T shareholders must approve the new name because it will alter the company's articles of incorporation. BB&T has not set a date for its meeting because, among other things, it had to determine the name that would need to be on the ballot. SunTrust shareholders will not be voting on the name change.

Assuming the merger agreement receives the blessing of regulators, BB&T and SunTrust anticipate it will close late in the third quarter or early in the fourth quarter. The combined bank would have about $440 billion in assets, making it the sixth-largest bank in the U.S., and will be based in Charlotte, N.C.

Chris Marinac, director of research at Janney Montgomery Scott, compared the new name to Synovus, a mash-up of synergy and novus (Latin for new) that initially drew some head-scratching when it debuted in 1989.

“It was a fish out of water for maybe the first year, but now it makes perfect sense today,” he said of the Columbus, Ga., regional banking company.

Marinac also praised BB&T and SunTrust executives for taking their time with the brand change.

Truist was initially ridiculed on social media. The overwhelming majority of Twitter users responding to an informal poll by American Banker replied that they hated it.

But branding and marketing experts were not so quick to write it off. Regardless of what Twitter users may say now, Truist is still in many ways a blank slate for the two companies.

“A word stands for nothing until you build a positive, or negative, perception to go along with it,” Beahm said.

Paul Davis contributed to this article.

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M&A Regional banks Branding Truist Financial BB&T SunTrust