What's in a name? A lot, say an increasing number of credit card companies.

Last week Advanta Corp. announced that it had changed the name of a bank it owns, Colonial National Bank USA, to Advanta National Bank USA, to "broaden its brand awareness."

Now the consumer credit company owns three banks under the Advanta name. While such an announcement is hardly headline-making news, it does however, reflect lenders' growing interest in using the power of their brands to set them apart from competitors.

"If you are just one of the many banks that doesn't stand for something, you have a tough row to hoe," said Advanta Corp. president and chief operating officer Richard Greenawalt.

The Horsham, Pa.-based financial services company is promoting its brand name for various reasons, but it appears to have the same idea as American Express; Dean Witter, Discover & Co.; and Citibank, to name a few.

These companies have also tinkered with their names to enhance their business opportunities.

American Express, for example, in January 1995 changed the name of its financial planning subsidiary, IDS Financial Services, to American Express Financial Advisors. A three-year pilot in six cities showed that IDS planners garnered more business using the American Express brand name.

"It really opens doors when we say, 'Hi, I'm from American Express,' " said American Express spokeswoman Lynn Closway.

Citibank has a history of promoting its brand. After the recent wave of mergers, Citibank ran several ads touting the facts that its name had not changed and that it did not have a new owner.

Its credit cards campaign uses the slogan "Not just Visa, Citibank Visa," and in June the bank will promote several new mutual fund products, to be called CitiSelect. In the past, Citibank has not offered its own fund using its name.

Dean Witter recently announced plans to push its Novus brand, a logo that signifies where Dean Witter cards are accepted.

Dean Witter wants the Novus mark to have the same name recognition as its rivals MasterCard and Visa. "Cirrus and Plus are visually known marks," said Thomas R. Butler, president and chief executive of Novus Services Inc. Those marks "direct me to a location, and we are simply saying by putting the Novus flag on the card (that) you can go to these locations."

Observers say more credit card companies are looking at developing their brands, particularly as banks begin marketing in more states.

In the past, banks were unable to cross state lines, "so it shouldn't be a surprise that they don't have the recognition that Coca-Cola, American Express, and Citibank" have enjoyed, said Jerry D. Craft, who heads up Card Issuer Program Management, a consulting firm in Atlanta.

The practice of cobranding has heightened bankers' awareness of the importance of brands, said Michael Auriemma, of Auriemma Consulting Group, Westbury, N.Y.

In Advanta's case, Mr. Greenawalt said, "It is not coincidental that our joint venture in the United Kingdom is called RBS Advanta. The more that we are well known on a global basis, it adds value to the company and to all the constituents in our company," including shareholders.

To arouse local awareness of Advanta, the company is sponsoring the Cezanne exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and a six-city mathematics competition called the Advanta Challenge for students in the fourth through eighth grades.

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