The Lesson of Virginia National Bank

Virginia National Bank

CHARLOTTESVILLE – Any person who lived in Virginia in the 1970s would know these regional bank jingles.

  • “F&M’s free banking puts you and your checkbook … a jump ahead.”
  • “Virginia National is the way Virginia Banks today.”

The two banks merged, and became Sovran. Something was lost. Little was gained. (Above, an ad image ad from the Garden Club of Virginia’s annual Historic Garden Week in Virginia guidebook.)

In the early 1980s, Virginia banks (like banks across the U.S.) were strong, profitable and geographically cohesive. They were tightly regulated, and each had local boards.

In Virginia, there was Virginia National Bank, United Virginia Bank and Bank of Virginia, among many others. Each of these, with consolidation with out-of-state banks, became Sovran, Crestar and Signet in the late 1980s. The names were not popular, though giddish public relations and marketing folks congratulated themselves to colleagues on their cleverness in coming up with such meaningless names, even as customers began to feel alienated.

The message was clear. We don’t care about Virginia, though we’ll tell you we do. The same scene played out across the nation.

Strategy Failed

It was not a disguised message. It was explicit—we are taking the name of your state (and or city) off the bank, and putting up a generic name that some name agency folks cooked up in front of a focus group of people you probably don’t like. The delicious irony of it was that it didn’t work at all. They wasted a ton of money on graphics and signage that could have gone to stockholders. And now the feds had to bail out the whole system.

The No-Longer-In-Name Virginia banks were taken over by North Carolina banks, and today Sovran beget NCNB the NationsBank and now Bank of America; Crestar became part of SunTrust and Bank of Virginia/Signet part of Wachovia, which is now part of Wells Fargo.

About 15 years later, on January 7 1998 to be exact, Mark Giles and Hunter Craig opened a bank in Charlottesville called Virginia National Bank. While the bank was new, and there was no confusing the old with the new, they capitalized on decades of advertising and goodwill and instantly made themselves a fixture in their community.

This VNB is really got on the nerves of Bank of America folks — in Charlottesville, where the old VNB donated landscaping along a 1970s roadside bypass, city officials removed the VNB name from accompanying signs and inserted Bank of America, just to make clear what company paid for the 40-year-old bushes.

Advice? If there is an old name around, and it isn’t being used, talk to a trademark attorney, and make a grab for it. Take it. Companies do not have the right to keep trademarks they don’t use, especially brands that are geographic names combined with generic names. They might try to pull some stuff on you, but don’t worry. It will just get you some press sympathy and point home the fact that these great regional financial services brands abandoned their communities.

Related story: Read our story called Enough of these Fake Company Names. If your English insurance company is called Norwich Union and you rename it some stupid name like Aviva, you are doing something stupid. Or if you turn a venerable insurance company like Life of Virginia and make it called Genworth, you are messin’ stuff up too.


  • Garland Pollard

    J. Garland Pollard IV is editor/publisher of BrandlandUSA. Since 2006, the website has chronicled the history and business of America’s great brands.


  1. hav a 1000 grain silver ingot united va bank edge 70 2483 would like history and now owns this bank thanksd

  2. You missed an important point in all of the renaming. The idea of removing geographic names wasn’t just done to alienate Virginians, but to make the bank’s names more appealing to non-Virginians. All of the institutions you cited were expanding out of Virginia into DC and Maryland when limited interstate banking came into play in the 1980s. For a brief period of time, the Virginia banks were regional big dogs. That lasted until interstate banking became unlimited and the big dogs became the NCNBs, Wachovias, and First Unions of the world.

    I worked for UVB/Crestar at the time and my Dad worked for Bank of Virginia/Signet. Signet did consumer research eight months after their name change and discovered that the Bank of Virginia name had been almost completely forgotten by the public. I also heard from coworkers at UVB that when they were looking for a holding company name in 1969, they hired the same “brand consultant” that Virginia National and F&M hired. One of the names they suggested in 1969 was “Sovran”. The UVB folks said no thanks, we want a name that has Virginia in it and suggests unity – hey, how about “United Virginia Bank”? They paid the consultants something like $500 for their efforts.

    The same guys sold “Sovran” to VNB/F&M in the 1980’s for $50,000. 🙂

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