What do some bankers have against the word "bank"?
Once again, the trusty noun is being shown the door -- this time by Mellon Bank Corp. of Pittsburgh, which recently announced plans to become Mellon Financial Corp. at yearend.
The aim, of course, is to shed banks' stodgy image and to announce to the world that there is more to the company than taking deposits and making loans.
Caught up in sweeping changes in the industry, many banking companies are trying to get the message out that they have changed too, said Hayes Ross, senior executive director at Landor Associates, a New York brand consulting firm that helps corporations resolve their identity crises. "They're creating a buzz," he said. "They're scrambling for an evocative word to describe themselves."
The question is whether today's favored term -- "financial services company" -- fits the bill.
" 'Financial services' seems pale," said Donald G. Simonson, professor of finance at the University of New Mexico's Anderson School of Management. "It doesn't carry the driving excitement that banking, on a universal scale, connotes."
Nor has it made much of an impression on dictionary publishers, who say they see no compelling reason to include a definition in their books.
"There are so many new words," said Joseph P. Pickett, executive editor of the American Heritage Dictionary, published by Houghton Mifflin & Co. "We wouldn't necessarily define one unless there was convincing evidence that it had special meaning."
The term's murkiness troubles even some advocates. "Everyone wants to be a financial services company," said Mr. Ross, the branding consultant, who praised the term as conjuring up images of a company that offers more choices than a mere bank.
But "pretty soon, no one's going to know what that means," he said. The impact of the term will become diluted as companies with vastly different offerings adopt it, and in time, "the chief executive officer who puts the 'bank' back in the name may find that he's differentiating himself."
The American Bankers Association, which said it has no formal policy for members' name choices, "likes to take as broad a view as possible" of the word "bank" and strongly encourages its use, said spokeswoman Janet Eissenstat. "It represents a whole host of financial institutions," she said.
Many companies remain convinced of the word's power to evoke trust, reliability, and service. Bank One Corp. in Chicago and Bank of America Corp. in Charlotte, N.C., have embraced the term as part of their identities, plastering it on thousands of branches across the country.
Of course, "bank" may well have its drawbacks. Branding experts cite anecdotal evidence that the show the general population still does not link the term immediately with a company that sells mutual funds or insurance -- the very services companies like Mellon have been trying to emphasize.
" 'Mellon Bank' just didn't describe what they did," said Robert Adam, chairman of Adam Filippo & Associates, the Pittsburgh-based corporate identity consulting firm that researched the name change for Mellon. " 'Mellon Corp.' was too vague," he said. " 'Mellon Financial' described everything they do."
But don't write off "bank" just yet. Mr. Pickett, the dictionary editor, certainly hasn't.
"It's too important a term," he said. "It's played such a big part of history."