It is hard to get to know something that changes its name frequently. And in the business of trust, the bank brand name change is the most difficult. Banks brands thrive on old-fashioned notions of fairness and consistency. When the consistency part is inconsistent, you lose, well, consistency and you confuse customers.
So today, at the end of 2020, BB&T and SunTrust are now, finally, coming together in the public mind as the concocted or fanciful name Truist. The name change process, now going on for a year, is hitting Instagram feeds. But the name has had a mixed reception. Yes, it takes a root word, trust, and marries it to a familiar suffix, ist. But it sounds like a Tryst, and any concocted word purposefully obliterates all history before it. Its blue is deep and true, and the lettering is conservative, without being antique. But still, there is the word. Truist.
The brand may succeed, not because it is good, or beloved, but because it represents a giant bank holding company, with millions of customers who will abide by the name change because it is just the way it is. You have to accept it, or switch, and the alternative is often not much better. So one just goes along, truisting away. The argument that people love it, or hate it, is sort of moot. As with all modern corporatism, you sort of suffer the generic, until you decide to finally switch, and decide you want a Virginia bank name like Chesapeake National Bank, Burke & Herbert, or Bank of Middleburg. Or toss the whole idea altogether, and live in a 21st Century world of Venmo, Square and Bitcoin.
Last summer (2020) the credit union Truliant sued the newly named entity, claiming it was too close of a name to its name. This is the nightmare scenario for a name change. Just at the time a company is trying to promote the name change, its whole premise is questioned because it picked a name that was too close to another bank. This is an unfortunate mistake in rebranding.
In this case, legal discovery is apparently due Jan. 1, 2021, which will make for some fun Christmas vacations for attorneys.
In this case, whether Truliant and Truist can be confused will be up to the court. The standard for trademarks is confusion in the minds of the consumer, and that can be determined many ways. Truist has said its court filings that it has invested about $125 million in new branding including $75 million in marketing; $40 million to change up systems; $7 million for branding; and $4 million for official approval.
Changing a brand is a massive job; it used to be that you had to take old signs down, and go about and round up old stationary, business cards and pens and such, all the while you ran new ads, and handed out new stress balls, buttons and note pads. Today, with the web, you have to do all the physical things, as well was update millions of web pages, statements, and back office systems. It is not a good thing to have to do a second time. The company estimated that to change it again would cost another $34 million.
We have now had decades of name changes in banks in the United States, and not just banks, but all financial services brands, from insurance to investments. It is not helping the trust situation. From 1979 to 2018, the number of Americans who said that they trusted their financial institutions “a great deal” is down from 60 percent to 30 percent, according to an American Enterprise Institute white paper published September 2018 by Karlyn Bowman. This mistrust came from a number of places, including the financial crash, and not name changes. The reality, however, is that companies can recover from bad products and mistrust. People expect that long-standing companies are not monoliths, and are composed of everyday humans who make mistakes. Once a company pays the price, it can often recover.
In the case of BB&T and SunTrust, this is the fifth name for the bank that I have known in as many decades in my life. What does it say about a company name that you have to change it every decade? As a Virginian, I knew it first as State Planters, then United Virginia, then Crestar, then SunTrust and then Truist.
The challenges with an invented name are thus:
- It’s a compromise between warring factions in a takeover: The name reflects the reality that neither company could make a case that its brand was better. When, in fact, one brand is really good (BB&T), and another a decent name (SunTrust).
- Equity is lost: Both BB&T and SunTrust have millions in brand knowledge and equity. That is lost immediately.
- Predecessor Brands Have Value: The strongest brands have long lifespans.
- It’s Trendy: Creating a new name means that you are creating in a time such as now. Your brand, then, is a product of the year 2020, and it will age, too.
- Long-lived Brands Demand Attention: There is a reason why business anniversaries demand celebrations, and brands put their “ESTD.” date on their marketing information. It means that when something has been around, it creates a set of expectations and history. That’s a legacy.
A Wealth of Names
A March 1975 William and Mary Law Review article tells the story of the different bank brands in Virginia and how they came to be in the wake of post World War 2 banking deregulation. Michael J. Ileo and David C. Parcell detail the various effects of deregulation in their article “Evolution of the Virginia Banking Structure 1962-1974: The Effects of the Buck-Holland Bill.” Their paper details an era of bank mergers, followed by consolidation via holding companies.
These regional bank names in Virginia became the largest of Virginia’s banks in the 1960s and 1970s. They included First Virginia Bankshares, United Virginia Bankshares, Bank of Virginia Company, Virginia National Bankshares, First & Merchants Corporation, Fidelity American Bankshares, Dominion Bankshares, and Financial General Bankshares. Today, those banks are spread amongst Bank of America (the former F&M and Virginia National Bank), Truist, Capital One (Bank of Virginia’s Charge Plan) and Wells Fargo (incorporating Central Fidelity).
In Virginia alone, and just relating to the former Truist brands, there were dozens of names, that started with the December 1965 opening of Planters National Bank, later becoming State-Planters, after a series of mergers. These later mergers included (thanks to authors Ileo and Parcell):
- United Virginia Bank, Richmond (formerly State-Planters Bank of Commerce & Trusts)
- The Suburban Bank, Richmond
- The Tri-County Bank, Mechanicsville
- United Virginia Bank/National, Vienna (formerly First & Citizens National Bank, Alexandria), Shirlington Trust Company, Inc., Arlington
- United Virginia Bank of Fairfax, Vienna (formerly Vienna Trust Company)
- United Virginia Bank/Seaboard National, Norfolk (formerly Merchants & Farmers Bank of Franklin)
- Seaboard Citizens National Bank, Norfolk
- The Farmers Bank of Nansemond, Suffolk
- Farmers Bank of Holland, Inc., Holland
- Eastern Shore Citizens Bank, Onancock
- United Virginia Bank/Citizens & Marine, Newport News (formerly Citizens & Marine Bank)
- The Citizens National Bank of Hampton, Hampton
- United Virginia Bank/First National, Lynchburg (formerly First National Trust and Savings Bank)
- United Virginia Bank of Williamsburg, Williamsburg (formerly Peninsula Bank & Trust Company)
- James York Bank, Williamsburg
- United Virginia Bank/Spotswood, Harrisonburg (formerly Spotswood Bank)
- United Virginia Bank/Rockbridge, Lexington (formerly Rockbridge Bank & Trust Company)
This list does not include all the other banks. For instance, in Church Hill, Richmond, a SunTrust branch still sports the “Church Hill Bank” logo across its front. The bank, wisely, left the name up, as a symbol of that history. And it has remained in Church Hill, as a committment to an older, inner city neighborhood.
Under the Truist bank name umbrella, there are other sub brands, ones that should get preserved, particularly BB&T Scott & Stringfellow, an old-line brokerage brand.
Meanwhile, competitor Bank of America has merely tweaked its logo, making it slightly better, in an update from the brand firm Lippincott. Somehow, that seems a better alternative.
About nine years ago, BrandlandUSA considered the topic of fake brand names. The Crestar name evoked this comment:
When I worked at United Virginia Bank and they announced the “Crestar” name, the employees had what can only be said to be an overwhelming felling of “WTF?” They had to rush the announcement of the new name because someone leaked it to the media before it was to become official. Since they had to move quickly, a Richmond attorney took advantage of the situation by promptly incorporating and obtaining business licenses for 20 or so “Crestar” entities. I don’t know if they paid anything to make him go away; the bank had much better lawyers.
Brands need to be consistent, keeping their name changes to a minimum, and evolving them as they go along. Among the hundreds of brands that have made up SunTrust and BB&T, surely there was an alternative to Truist.
As companies merge, the best idea is to take the strongest of the brands, and keep them, using the predecessor company names as identities for regions, business units and products. That way, you have an identity off the shelf, to use.
You can create new product brands, and identities, but using all of them, in a creative way, will help avoid having to spend $200 million for branding work and a merger, and time on lawsuits and consumer confusion.