One of the fruits of success for the surviving regional electronic banking networks is their readily recognizable brand names.
But while consumers have grown comfortable with identities such as Honor and MAC, Star and NYCE, the networks may ultimately fall victim to their own success.
The nation's largest banking companies, which typically operate in multiple states, long ago tired of supporting a variety of automated teller machine brands. They have pushed for much of the network consolidation that has taken place to date.
But the pace of network consolidation may not be keeping up with the banks' geographical expansion. Some industry sources say leaders of large banks have even started to talk about creating a single, nationwide ATM network.
One high-level official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said such a super-consortium could solve the brand-proliferation problem once and for all.
"Banks have gotten tired of being held hostage" by the regional networks, the banker said.
To be sure, talk about unification is not new.
Joseph E. Wallace, for one, has advocated creation of a simplified identifier for years. A Chicago-based financial consultant and something of an industry gadfly, Mr. Wallace has proposed a logo called System B that would denote any machine's connection to the standard banking grid.
He said his vision is closer than ever to becoming reality.
"The days are numbered for these regional networks-at least in the branding sense," said Mr. Wallace. "I think we'll see an acceleration of consolidation."
Members of the Bankers Roundtable, an association of top executives of the 125 largest banking companies, are seriously discussing a streamlined national network, said Mr. Wallace. Aside from perceived marketing advantages, overhead and transaction processing costs would likely decline- assuming a single system could dodge antitrust bullets.
Some argue that a good national-and for practical purposes, international-ATM system already exists, in that virtually all machines have interconnections to virtually all networks. If transactions cannot be cleared within a given network or through its primary gateways to other systems, MasterCard's Cirrus network and Visa's Plus stand behind them as processors of last resort.
Because of the backup coverage by the nationals, the issue of branding has almost become moot: Most cards will work in most ATMs, and most consumers know that. And this may be the most compelling reason for bankers to lose interest in their regional networks.
Ronald H. Reed, vice president of ATM products at Visa, is not overly concerned about Plus losing business to a hypothetical national supernetwork.
"We hear, and have heard forever, people talking about joint ventures and alternative routing processes," said Mr. Reed. "I probably had this conversation five years ago-10 years ago."
"I don't know about anything serious" in this regard, he added.
"Every year someone predicts the networks will go out of business," said Stan Paur, president of Pulse EFT Association in Houston. "I've been doing this for 15 years. We haven't yet."
Visa executives were "originally apprehensive" that consolidation of ATM switching would reduce Plus' domestic volumes, but that has not happened, Mr. Reed said. Visa continues to process about 40 million transactions a month.
As part of its effort to keep customers happy, Visa cut its prices at yearend 1996. Instead of a flat 5 cents per transaction, it instituted a sliding scale based on volume, from 2.5 cents to 4.5 cents.
Meanwhile, signs have emerged that regional brands have grown extremely powerful.
In a survey last year of 600 ATM customers in the Northeast, NYCE Corp. found that 58% refused to put their card into an ATM that did not sport the NYCE logo.
"In the state of Texas, there are some consumers that think Pulse is a bank," said David W. Dove, principal of Dove Associates Inc., Boston.
The regionals "provide considerable brand equity in their markets," Mr. Dove said, "and that brand equity buys you legitimacy in the consumer market."
In Atlantic City, where two machines were placed side-by-side, one with logos and one without, the one with the marks got the most transactions, he said.
"I think we may have overplayed the fact that consumers don't care" about ATM brands, said Dennis Lynch, chairman and chief executive officer of NYCE.
But large banks will be asking whether the benefits of maintaining regional brands outweigh their costs.
Executives at the largest regional networks see a future for networks of all sizes, though there may be more cooperation among those that will survive the consolidation.
"We are in a world of a whole lot of alliances and partnerships," said Mr. Lynch.
Indeed, the most aggressive of the regional networks have moved quickly to band together, said Mr. Wallace. He said he was surprised to see Tyme, the logo of the Wisconsin ATM network, on an ATM in Atlanta.