What's in a name? When it comes to bank-managed mutual funds, the answer is: plenty.

For most of the 100-plus banks that manage mutual funds, names have been passed down from family heirlooms, steeped in history and lore.

Consider Northern Trust Corp.'s Benchmark Funds. The name is meant to insprie confidence, to suggest that the funds represent a standard of excellence.

But there's more to it: The cornerstone of the bank's headquarters at 50 LaSalle St. also happens to be the benchmark point for measuring the height of all other buildings in Chicago.

The Name Barrier

There is another reason why banks have tended to adopt historic, event fanciful, names for their mutual funds, rather than simply using their own corporate monikers. Until 18 months ago, it was thought that regulators would fight any move by a bank to name its mutual funds after the bank itself.

The changed on May 1, 1992, when NationsBank shattered the name barrier by merging two fund families with assets of $4.5 billion under the name of NationsFunds.

Since then, several banks have followed suit, with some changing their names and others launching fund families with sound-alike names.

The reasoning behind this strategy, is simple: A bank's name can be a powerful draw in a local market.

Regulators Leery

But many bankers are still holding back from adopting sound-alike names, concerned that customers may mistakenly think that the funds are covered by federal deposit insurance.

"The people that are marketing the mutual funds want to use the name of the bank," said Alvin Schechter, chairman of the Schechter Group, a corporate-identity consulting firm in New York. "But the people who are responsiblel for the bank in totality don't want to risk running afoul of the regulators."

Indeed, lawmakers and regulators are uneasy about the practice of using common names for a bank and its funds. Proposals are afoot in Congress to ban banks from using even variants on their own names for a mutual fund. (See related story on facing page.)

Reflecting these concerns, direct corporate names are used by only three of the 13 fund families of the top 10 banks in the business. Those are the PNC Funds, the NationsFunds, and the Wells Funds.

Three more families use a truncated version of the bank's name, or the bank's initials. The other seven don't use any version of the parent bank's name.

Industry experts see the choice of a mutual fund family's name as an important decision for banks.

"It's like any kind of product strategy -- you want to have some kind of syner;gistic effect," siad Bert Ely, president of Ely & Co., an Alexandria, Va., consulting firm.

Strategy Change

For some banks, a name change has heralded a shift in marketing strategy.

NationsBank, for instance scrapped its venerable Hatteras Funds name when it switched to the NationsFund moniker.

The Hatteras Funds evoked North Carolina's lighthouse-dotted coastline -- an image that harks back to the bank's origins as North Carolina National Bank. In view of NationsBank's ambitions to be seen as a nationwide financial institution, the image became outmoded.

The name gets high marks from industry observers.

"NationsFunds is clearly a good name," said Geoff Bobroff, a Denver-based mutual fund consultant. "In time, it will develop its own cachet in the marketplace."

Still the Exception

After NationsBank's trialblazing move captured the industry's attention, First Union Corp. the Society Corp. were among the first to follow suit.

In addition, several banks that have launched mutual funds in the past 18 months have adopted like-sounding names. They include Shawmut National Corp. and Baybanks.

But using a common names for a bank and its mutual fund family is still the exception, rather than the rule.

"Many of the banks would like you to believe they have a national name, but for the most part they're regional banks," Mr. Bobroff said. "If there's one thing they can play off, it's their local image."

Evoking an Image

A number of bankers apparently agree, and many have adopted mutual fund names that resonate with local imaginery:

* Portland, Ore.-based U.S. Bancorp. operates the Cascade Funds named after the Cascade Range of mountains,, which stretches from North California into British Columbia.

* First Chicago Corp. dubs its products the First Prairie Funds, a wholesome-sounding name that suggests the nation's bread-basket.

* Bank of Boston calls its funds the 1978 Funds -- a reference to the year the bank was founded and a bow to the rich history of the Boston area.

* South Trust Bank's Vulcan Funds, named for the Roman god of fire and metalworking, evoke the steel mills that once dominated Birmingham, Ala.

Wells Draws Applause

One name that is widely admired is the Stagecoach Funds, Wells Fargo & Co.'s fund family for retail investors.

"There's a clever name. It links the fund name to that of the bank, yet clearly establishes the distinction," said Mr. Schechter, the corporate-identity consultant. "I think it gives you the best of both worlds."

Wells Fargo's Overland Express funds, for institutional investors, continue the play on words.

For some banks, the choice of a mutual fund family name helps to forge a common identity among disparate operating units. The Rembrandt Funds are a case in point.

Launched in January, the Rembrandt Funds are managed by LaSalle National Trust, a unit of ABN Armo, the Dutch banking giant. They are marketed through the trust and through three other U.S. subsidiaries of ABN/Amro: LaSalle National Bank, LaSalle Talman Bank, and European American Bank.

The name is clever because it conjures up "a sense of age, steeped in beauty," said Mr. Bobroff, the fund consultant.

Furthermore, the name underscores ABN/Amro's European roots, he said. That's important, because the fund lineup includes several international portfolios.

Eye on the Target

Finding a colorful, quirky name for a mutual fund isn't an issue for most mainstream fund companies.

With the notable exception of Capital Research and Management Corp.'s American Funds. nonbank mutual funds have the same name as their corporate parents, Mr. Bobroff pointed out.

Indeed, he noted, "the mutual fund industry only became captivated with name recognition when families of funds became more prevalent in the late '70s. Before that, most people were selling only onf fund."

Mr. Schechter said he is currently working with several banks to come up with mutual fund names.

In counseling clients, he tries to keep one thought in the forefront: "Let's be honest - the market for these funds is bank customers," Mr. Schechter said. "They're not competing with the Fidelitys of the world." While Mr. Schechter advocates "linking the mutual fund as closely as possible with the name of the base institution," he agrees with the view that there is a distinct risk of confusing customers.

He added, "The more conservative institutions that are most concerned about the risk of litigation stay away from it."

Keycorp is an example. The Albany, N.Y.-based bank considered naming its new funds the Key Funds - but scrapped that idea in favor of the Victory Funds.

And no, bank executives insist, the Victory Funds are not named after Keycorp chairman Victor Riley.

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