Highlighting banks' difficulty in projecting unique brand images, a recent survey found that business executives do not perceive many differences among the nation's largest banks.

Landor Associates, a San Francisco consulting firm that specializes in corporate image and identity, surveyed 500 senior business executives about the brand strengths of 86 companies in 12 industries, including hospitality, consulting, and air travel.

Of seven banks in the study, Chase Manhattan rated highest, at No. 22 overall. Citicorp was 24th and NationsBank 31st.

BankAmerica came in 48th, First Union Corp. 62d, J.P. Morgan & Co. 78th, and Bank of New York Co. 79th.

"The banks category was perhaps the least differentiated in the eyes of executives ... indicating a real lack of success in creating and sustaining strong, distinctive brands for business audiences," said Susan Nelson, executive director of research at Landor.

The survey is the first by Landor to focus on branding in the business market.

The firm, which has long examined consumer perceptions, switched to the business sector after it was acquired by Young & Rubicam Inc. in 1989, a spokesman said.

The highest-scoring banks in the study "do the most advertising, have the largest geographic footprint, and have the biggest breadth of services," said Brannon M. Cashion, vice president of Addison Whitney, a corporate identity consultancy in Charlotte, N.C.

But the three top banks were not too successful at differentiation from one another, the Landor survey found.

In nearly all of the study's categories, respondents rated the three leading banks about the same.

No single bank stood out in the minds of business executives.

Brand awareness of Chase, Citibank, and NationsBank was about the same. The three also scored similarly on providing value to customers. They also tied regarding which would be the likeliest to be successful.

And respondents rated the three essentially the same when asked which they would choose for business banking.

"In any industry where the products, prices, and distribution are not highly differentiated, it's no surprise," said Richard C. Hartnack, vice chairman of Union Bank of California.

While he agreed with the overall findings, Mr. Hartnack said they do not necessarily hold true in localized consumer markets. The differences consumers and small-businesspeople perceive among banks generally do not always have to do with product and service offerings or even pricing, he argued.

"We see the real differences come up when you ask customers which new bank they would pick, which bank they absolutely would not pick, and which bank they would recommend to a friend," Mr. Hartnack said.

"You have to really get down and ask people about their relevant set of choices."

Some observers said a bank's image in the consumer markets affects how it is seen by business customers.

Hoyt E. Wilkinson, managing vice president with First Manhattan Consulting Group in Los Angeles, offered Wells Fargo & Co. as an example of a bank that has done a good job extending its consumer-brand strengths into the small-business market.

But others have not fared as well.

"Most banks are stuck with a brand that doesn't mean anything," Mr. Wilkinson said. So they do "an equally weak job differentiating their brand on the business side."

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