The Wintrust brand finally has a bank to call its own in Chicago.

The $18 billion-asset Wintrust Financial has spent the last few decades playing the role of Oz, keeping its corporate brand behind a curtain while promoting its growing branch network under the names of community banks branded to reflect local communities.

Playing off the success of its Wintrust-branded mortgage and wealth management businesses, management made its boldest move last weekend by rebranding a dozen branches in Chicago's downtown and northside as Wintrust Bank.

"We've been slowly expanding into the city and we decided we wanted a more cohesive brand in the city," says Matthew Doubleday, Wintrust's senior vice president of marketing. "With all the money we've spent on building up the Wintrust brand, we felt a retail bank should benefit."

Wintrust is using its $2.4 billion-asset North Shore Community Bank & Trust to test the waters. The company has applied to regulators to convert the bank's charter — its largest in terms of assets — into Wintrust Bank, though its suburban branches will continue to do business as North Shore, Doubleday says.

Historically, Wintrust didn't focus on promoting the holding company's name, but that thinking has evolved in recent years. Besides Wintrust-branded wealth management and mortgage divisions, the company in 2012 opened the commercially focused Wintrust Banking Center downtown. The company also has a marquee building near Chicago O'Hare International Airport and had tagged all of its banks as "a Wintrust community bank." Doubleday says about a quarter of Wintrust's marketing budget is spent on promoting the corporate brand.

Still, Doubleday cautions that observers shouldn't read the move as an indication that Wintrust is moving toward a unified brand.

"We're not changing our branding or our strategy everywhere," Doubleday says. "Our company still believes in the uniqueness of each neighborhood, but it helps knowing things are tied together."

Wintrust Bank, with a dozen branches, will become the company's largest branded entity, Doubleday says.

Wintrust and Chief Executive Ed Wehmer have faced more questions about centralization as other multi-bank holding companies cut costs through brand and charter consolidations, says Brad Milsaps, an analyst at Sandler O'Neill. The topic often arises when management is asked about Wintrust's stagnant and relatively high efficiency ratio. The ratio was at 69.02% at March 31, rising slightly from a quarter earlier as mortgage cuts lagged lower revenue in that business.

"They're resistant to not having the local names reflect the local community," Milsaps says. "I've often thought overall that a [single] brand in a city like Chicago or any other high-density area is important. They've had a lot of success with things like the commercial business and this might be a more-efficient use of their marketing dollars."

An expansion of the Wintrust brand runs parallel to the company's expansion deeper into the heart of Chicago. The company built its Windy City presence largely by acquiring failed banks.

Wintrust has been a prolific buyer of failed banks from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., picking up nine through its various banking subsidiaries.

Part of the motivation to consolidate the brand in Chicago reflects the younger population of the city, Doubleday says. Though older suburbanites might appreciate Wintrust's hyperlocal presence, younger city dwellers crave convenience.

Wintrust's approach to reaching a younger demographic in the city reflects the confluence of traits of "Generation Y," says Kit Yarrow a consumer psychology professor at Golden Gate University. "Gen Y really values hyper convenient," says Yarrow, author of Decoding the New Consumer Mind.

"But the thing about Gen Y, is that just about everything you say about them can be contradictory," Yarrow adds. "They might want convenience, but they also appreciate doing business with local businesses."

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