The New York Times recently reported that a woman who was depositing some business checks for her husband accidentally used a deposit slip from another bank, where they had a personal account.
Before returning the documents to her, the teller left his cage and whispered to another teller: "What's the name of the bank this week?"
With all the changes in banking, one can understand the woman's mistake. And it reminded me of the cartoon that depicts a big sign in front of a bank with three lines on it: time, temperature, and bank's name today.
Do names matter? Will people keep on banking at the site they are used to, or will they move their accounts if the name is unfamiliar?
Most people stay put. Studies show that convenience is the most important factor in choosing a bank-even in these days of ATMs.
This is not always the case. Names can count.
In New York City's boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, the now long-gone Hamburg Savings Bank had a tough time during World War II in neighborhoods with large Jewish populations.
And in New Jersey, a fierce football rivalry between Passaic and Clifton hurt Passaic-Clifton Bank. Its name was eventually changed-to Valley National Bank.
Sure, people change banks when service worsens, charges and fees rise, or familiar bankers disappear. But it is advertising that is supposed to make people differentiate one bank from others.
But most ads tell the same story, says Donald Karp, chief executive officer at Broad National Bank of New Jersey.
Writing in the bank's employee publication, Broad Views, he said the usual message is: We are the only bank that cares about you and will do a job no one else could possibly do.
I remember a meeting of a bank marketing association at which bankers were reminded that the role of singing commercials is: "When you have nothing to say, sing it."
Mr. Karp points out that advertising slogans can get a bank into trouble.
"Our slogan seems to be one of semantics: 'We speak your language,'" he wrote. "But we can be accused of false advertising if someone comes into my office speaking Portuguese."
In a time when some people fear losing their assets due to year-2000 computer problems, Mr. Karp suggests slogans he thinks would be more useful:
We are the bank that doesn't screw up.
Even if our computer is down, we still love you.
And this attention-grabber:
Not only will you have your money back in the year 2000, but we can launder it for you as well.
Mr. Karp had his tongue firmly in cheek when he wrote these slogans, but there is a lot to be said for using humor as a marketing weapon. Banks and people are generally better received if they don't take themselves too seriously.
We know the word "bank" signifies safety and trust. Many savings and loan associations have taken the name "bank" now that they may legally do so.
Now the job is to match this image of stability with a feeling of real friendliness-a feeling that ad agencies have seldom generated for their clients.
Of course you can go too far.
As Mr. Karp points out, a bank that calls itself "The Bank with Heart" may attract the wrong people-those who have no intention of paying their loans. After all, compassion is just what they are looking for in a financial institution.