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Name Change Review: Salal, Quest and 6 Others

In few industries do you see players change names as often as you do in the financial space. Banks change names frequently because of mergers, while credit unions typically dump names that are tied to employers and/or are geographically limiting. Please note: Only names that have been newly introduced are included in this list. If a bank simply slaps its existing name on another financial institution, it isn’t listed here.

It’s a shrubbery

Old Name: Group Health Credit Union
New Name: Salal Credit Union

Reason: The credit union got a statewide charter in 2003, but found that marketing itself to people who didn’t work for Group Health Cooperative was tough. As is the case with most single-SEG credit unions making the transition to a community charter, they quickly realize the old name doesn’t work.

Analysis: So what the heck is Salal? It’s proper name is gaultheria shallon, an all-weather, shade-tolerant shrubbery (you can see pictures here).

On the credit union’s blog, it says, “We chose the name Salal, a beautiful, indigenous Northwest plant, to signify growth and our Northwest roots—and, since the plant has medicinal qualities, it supports our focus on serving the healthcare market. We feel the name Salal (rhymes with pal) is an accurate reflection of our membership as it is today, as well as our plans for future growth.”

This is likely to be one of the most controversial name changes in the credit union industry, right up there with names like “Red Canoe,” “Optiva” and “Wildfire.” Surely, Salal is a very unique name and will be a cinch to trademark, but it can also be criticized for making no connection back to the credit union’s history serving medical employees. The word itself — “salal” — is so obscure, so unfamiliar and so phonetically mushy that it evokes almost nothing. It doesn’t even resemble something from the English language (or American colloquial speech). It looks like something Greek or Yiddish.

Two credit unions pick the same name at the same time

Old Name #1: Hardin Community Federal Credit Union
New Name: Quest Federal Credit Union

Reason: The credit union expanded from Hardin County by merging with another in nearby Logan County. Members wanted the credit union to maintain the two separate brands, one in each county. But, as the credit union’s CEO said, “This is cumbersome, not cost effective and will only grow worse with future expansion.”

Old Name #2: Credit Union 1, Credit Unions United
New Name: Quest Credit Union

Reason: This was essentially a merger of two equally-sized credit unions in the Topeka, Kansas area. In mergers of equals, it’s quite common for both organizations to agree that a new brand name is the way to go so that neither looks like it’s taking over the other. It’s a smart strategy.

Analysis: This sucks, and it’s no one’s fault. The credit unions in Kansas and Ohio both looked around and saw no other retail financial institution was using “Quest” so they both thought it was a safe choice. They each thought they were picking a relatively conservative-yet-fresh name — and a common word at that — and now the two will probably have to share the name. Bummer. (There’s also a tiny credit union names Questa in New Mexico.) The two credit unions even have similar slogans: “Exploring the possibilities” and “Discover the possibilities.”

In January 2010, the Ohio Quest registered its URL (questfcu.com), followed by the Kansas Quest 22 days later (quest-cu.org). In March 2010, the $70 million Quest in Ohio applied for trademark protection with the USPTO, again edging out its $225 million Kansas peer who has yet to file.

This isn’t the first time this has happened. In 2003, Southern New England FCU in Connecticut chose Connex at the same time Wausau Insurance Employees Credit Union was choosing Connexus.

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From generic…to plain

Old Name: First Business Bank
New Name: Bank of Southern California

Reason: The name change resolves trademark issues with a bank in the Midwest that also carries the name First Business Bank name.

Analysis: “The process of selecting a new name has given us an opportunity to revisit our vision to be the best business bank in Southern California and to refine our branding and positioning for further growth,” said Nathan Rogge, president and CEO.” Talk about a blown opportunity…yawn. And if you have to change names over a trademark dispute, why on earth would you pick a name that about 100 other banks could sue you over?

New name for New Century

Old Name: New Century Bank
New Name: Customers 1st Bank

Reason: The Phoenixville News (that’s in Pennsylvania, not Arizona) reports that “the bank’s new trade name will more accurately reflect its mission, which is to provide attractive rates and an entirely new level of highly personalized service and convenience, something it believes is superior to that of any other bank in its region.”

Analysis: Do you buy the bank’s explanation? What’s really going on? There was another bank named New Century in Illinois. Did that have something to do with it? They held the official USPTO trademark for “New Century” in the banking category, but they were seized by the feds in April 2010. In March 2010, the bank applied for a federal trademark on “Customers 1st.” While it appears that there aren’t any direct conflicts in the USPTO database, one has to wonder why the bank would forego the relatively distinct and fresh-sounding “New Century” for the much more ordinary “Customers 1st.” How many Customer First banks do you think there are?

Replacing a town with a county

Old Name: Sykesville Federal Savings Association
New Name: Carroll Community Bank

Reason: The Baltimore Business Journal says the name change is part of the 140-year-old bank’s conversion from a federally chartered savings bank to a state-chartered bank regulated by Maryland’s Commissioner of Financial Regulation. “Our state charter will allow us to offer a greater diversity of products, and to increase our commercial lending to more local small businesses,” the bank said in press release. (Translation: “The bank expanded its geographic reach beyond the limitations of its name.”)

Analysis: Today Carroll Community Bank has two branches in Maryland and a shade under $100 million in assets. But what happens when/if the bank grows beyond Carroll County? Another name change? Indeed the bank has already announced plans to expand its business into nearby Howard County.

The new Carroll Community applied for a federally registered trademark in June 2010. There’s a Carroll County State Bank in Iowa, but they probably won’t present a big trademark hurdle. The Iowa bank will, however, give the new Carroll search engine problems.

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Geographic Word Jumbles

Old Name: Ypsilanti Area Federal Credit Union
New Name: Washtenaw Federal Credit Union

Reason: The credit union expanded its charter, so it changed names, or, in the credit union’s own words, “The Board of Directors voted at the April 2010 meeting to update the credit union name to better fit the field of membership as designated in our charter. The new name is more representative and inclusive of the current field of membership.”

“We thought that we should be more inclusive of the name to cover that field of membership,” CEO Gregory Gurka told AnnArbor.com. “It should cover the actual field of membership, not just one small portion of it.”

Analysis: It makes logical sense to switch from the city of Ypsilanti to the county of Washtenaw because it describes the $30 million credit union’s field of membership. But geographic names always present some degree of challenge. They are usually hard to trademark because there’s always a mess of other organizations using their names to lay claim to the same area (e.g., Washtenaw Community College, Washtenaw Coin Laundry, Washtenaw Cycle & Fitness and the 200 or so other real “Washtenaw-something-or-other” businesses in the Ypsilanti area).

Direct must be better than Plus

Old Name: RaboPlus
New Name: RaboDirect

Reason: The general manager for Rabo said the name change “supports our stance as a direct, straight-talking online bank.” That may be true, but that doesn’t adequately explain why the bank needed to go through all the hassle and expense of a name change.

Analysis: Who knows what the real strategy is here. The online banking arm of Rabobank is only a couple years old, so it’s a little surprising to see a name change come so quickly. Did they feel that “Plus” was a mistake when most online banking operations are using “Direct” as their category clarifier? Admittedly, the new name makes it much more clear that the outfit is a online bank. But was that the reason behind the change?

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Comments

  1. As always Jeffry…spot on analysis of an often touchy subject, and the same reason we love talking to credit unions about renaming. It may not be rocket science…but in many ways…it runs a close second if you’re in the financial industry looking for not only differentiations, but a solid link back to your history and heritage as well as trying to be visionary with a new name and brand.

    Great article!

  2. Do these banks realize that changing their name is by-and-large totally subservient in value to whether they change their positioning for differentiation?

    When new positioning concepts hit the market, like TD Bank telling us they are the most convenient bank, the branding logic becomes, “Oh, I’ve heard of them, they’re the bank that (is convenient, etc.).”

    If you leave off the second part, and all a name change does (if it even accomplishes this) is have people recognize the name, less than half the branding and revenue generation work has been done.

    So then, differentiated positioning using plain language, conversational logic is the way to go.

  3. Good points. A crucial aspect is that changing your brand in the middle of these “extraordinary times” is troublesome. With the loss of the former identity, the need to get people’s attention of who you are “now” requires spending more marketing dollars above the budgeted dollars the organization was spending using the past brand. And, most organizations have trimmed their marketing budgets down to offset the impact of higher insurance premiums coupled with slow loan demand. Just hoping these name changes are successful and not considered a magic bullet.

  4. Generally speaking, you are right Stephen. Brand strategy and position should drive everything, and in many cases, strategic rebranding does not necessitate a name change.

    However, credit unions in particular face a unique challenge. Most credit unions started life attached to a company. We’ll use the Acme Corporation as an example. One day, the Acme Corporation gets bought out by Global Amalgamated, so the credit union’s original name — Acme Employees Credit Union — no longer has any relevance.

    Or perhaps Acme Employee Credit Union decides it wants to serve more than just the employees of Acme Corp, so it gets a community charter. It may bumble around with a name like Acme Community Credit Union for a while, believing that the word “community” now implies that “anyone can join,” but this never works. So they realize that in order to grow beyond just Acme employees, they had better remove the word “Acme” from their name.

    Also, many name changes are the result of carelessness. A little due diligence on the front end would save many financial institutions from painful trademark lawsuits that ultimately result in a forced name change.

    It’s worth pointing out that the bank you mentioned — TD, America’s Most Convenient Bank — is itself an example of a strategic name change. TD would not be well received in the U.S. if it had tried to retain its original name, “Toronto Dominion.” “Toronto Dominion — America’s Most Convenient Bank.” How ridiculous would that sound?

    The same thing applies for HSBC, CIBC, RBC, RBS and just about every other bank using an acronym for its name. (And no, that is not an endorsement or recommendation for financial institutions to adopt acronyms, which almost always make horrible names.)

  5. Well said. Missed opportunity is the phrase of the day. As the Creative Director for a bank I’ve had to try and embrace a banker’s view of the world — which is ruled by a low appetite for risk, and fear of having to pay the lawyer. Understandable and vital from the balance sheet side of the organization, however my experience is that too often those criteria are mis-applied to decisions of brand and image, where intention, strategy and some creative leap of faith can pay huge dividends. Having to make ice cream out of horse crap after a viable creative idea has been beaten into something safe and acceptable is how we end up with some of the head scratchers above. Thanks, this will be a great piece of required reading for our exec staff!

  6. A wonderful conversation thread; I hope others join in to share how they feel about the balance of Positioning, identity elements (such as a name change) and how to attack the market since these all represent “moments of opportunity” that can be squandered or maximized.

    Also, Nicolette, I’ll second that a name change certainly isn’t a magic bullet, and shouldn’t be seen as such.

    Thanks Editor and Nicolette.

  7. Hahahahaha! I can see the tagline now! Salal Credit Union – We want……… A SHRUBBERY!

  8. I know the SHRUBBERY is a easy joke, but I’m actually inclined to say that it’s a good move, as weird/generic names go. It’s incredibly regional, very specific to western Washington state. If you garden in this part of the world, especially if you have any interest in native plant gardening, you know salal. (There’s lots of it in the landscaping at the building where I work, by the way.) And it has some historical weight as well; IIRC it was an important part of the native cultures before Europeans arrived.

  9. Don’t take it too hard Elaine. Anyone can make fun of every name (which will always happen with every name change).

    I don’t think anyone is challenging the geographical relevancy of the name, but it is pretty obscure. I grew up in Seattle and lived there for some 25 years (last time was 1998-2008). I’d never heard of Salal before the name change.

    To put it in some perspective, there are more Google results for “The Financial Brand” (485,000) than there are for Salal (420,000).

  10. I guess I’ve just been spending too much time thinking about gardens. :) (loving the whole Holy Grail twitter silliness, btw.)

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