Banks, eyeing new roles and wider territories, are coining new names

For more than a century -- 127 years to be exact -- the people of Boston's Charlestown neighborhood have had a bank that carried their ''hometown'' name. And though it moved its headquarters to downtown Boston some 20 years ago, the Charlestown Savings Bank still seemed to belong to Charlestown, even if in name only.

That will not be the case much longer. Soon, the institution will be known as the Neworld Bank for Savings. The name was approved by the Massachusetts secretary of state earlier this week. In adopting this ambitious title (pronounced ''new world''), Charlestown Savings has joined a colorful list of banks that have looked for a new image and new strategy for their future in a different name.

Like the Neworld Bank, the new names often eliminate any reference to the city the bank calls home.

* In Detroit, the Detroit Bank & Trust Company is even disguising its identity as a bank by changing its name to Comerica Inc.

* In St. Louis, the First National Bank became the Centerre Bank on Jan. 4 of this year.

* Back in Boston, New England Merchants National Bank, which has been calling itself the ''Bank of New England'' in its advertising for some time, will adopt that name officially as of May 1.

* In Cleveland, the Cleveland Trust Company became AmeriTrust in November 1979.

* In Seattle, the Rainier Bank used to be known as the National Bank of Commerce of Seattle.

* And in Providence, R.I., two of the oldest financial institutions, Industrial National Bank -- commonly known as ''INBank'' -- and Hospital Trust National Bank have announced plans to look for new names. Like Charlestown Savings, they would be jettisoning old, historic names. Hospital Trust's name dates back to the 1860s and Industrial National has carried its ''handle'' since 1797.

For these banks and many others, the reasons for trying on new monikers are more than an attempt to find a different, more ''modern'' image.

''Banks are looking forward to deregulation, both state and federal,'' says Walter Margulies, chief executive officer of Lippincott & Margulies Inc., a consulting firm specializing in corporate marketing, design, and identification.

Eventually, Mr. Margulies said, these bankers hope to be able to operate freely outside of the states or counties where they are now confined. In many states, laws have already been rewritten to permit statewide banking. And on the federal level, banks have been applying consistent pressure to change laws, such as the McFadden Act, which prohibit full-service interstate banking.

If they are successful, bankers argue, their institutions will need names that have as little local identity as possible, especially when competing for national corporate accounts.

If the banks were just competing with other commercial banks for these accounts -- as well as retail banking business -- a local name would not be that much of a problem. But they are not.

''We're competing with people like Sears, American Express, and Merrill Lynch ,'' said Robert Miller, senior vice-president for marketing at AmeriTrust. On their own or through recently acquired subsidiaries, these ''nonbanks'' are extending commercial credit, writing loans, and opening checklike accounts for their customers. To compete with these firms, banks are looking for as many ways as they can to broaden their identities.

Another reason might be to avoid repetition. According to Moody's Bank & Finance Manual, there are over 900 US banks whose names start with ''First National,'' and over 700 that begin with ''First of.''

Finding and adopting new identities can be a ''traumatic'' process, Mr. Miller says. Banks usually do not start out with the intention of changing all their stationery, every financial document and form, and all those signs.

''They come to us and say, 'We need a marketing change, a new positioning,' '' said Margulies. ''We study their market area, what they want to become, and what they think they are.''

If research, including surveys of people in the bank's area, shows that a new title for the bank would help, a list of names is presented to its officers and directors. Margulies said the names should be phonetic, brief, easy to say, and easy to recognize visually. And they should be as geographically unlimiting as possible. While several people at the bank get a chance to comment on the choices, the final selection is often made by one person. ''If the chief executive officer of the bank likes it, that's it,'' Margulies said. The name also has to be approved by the stockholders.

Even after more than two years, the benefits of a new name have been hard to measure, says AmeriTrust's Miller. Except for one area: advertising. AmeriTrust is the parent to several other banks in Ohio. The savings in costs resulting from common advertising have already yielded a 14 percent return on the ''millions of dollars'' invested in the new name, he said.

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