Why choose First Financial General over Century General Fidelity when it comes time to shop for a bank, a savings institution, or both? Offering virtually identical interest rates, housed in imposing granite buildings, inflexible and aloof - banks and thrifts frequently have problems standing out from the crowd.
But the competition fostered by deregulation of financial services in the United States has made many of these somewhat stodgy institutions rethink their whole approach to doing business. Some are going the route of ''financial supermarkets.'' Others, however, are trying to be as friendly and welcoming as the old neighborhood mom-and-pop grocery.
The case of a midsize mutual savings institution in New York seems to show how a makeover - from a gray granite image to a perky, colorful one - not only makes a bank distinctive but also meets the banker's supreme test: bottom-line profit. Since it changed its name from Harlem Savings to Apple Savings, bank president Jerome McDougal says, his institution's new accounts have tripled and deposits have soared.
Harlem/Apple is not the only institution doing a makeover. More and more banks are opting for names that produce what is called ''unaided recall'' by the general public - in other words, names that ring bells. For instance, Selame Design Associates, a Boston corporate design firm, is helping change the identity of First National Bank of Boston to ''Bank of Boston.'' It also recently helped Ware & Palmer Savings Banks (now merged) of Massachusetts change to ''Country Bank.'' First National Bank of San Jose, Calif., changed its name to ''Bank of the West.''
Earlier this year, Buffalo Savings Bank began calling itself ''Goldome,'' after the distinctive architecture of its headquarters building. Goldome spokesman Marc Chodorow notes, ''Seventy-five years ago Ford was identified with the Model T and savings banks with the passbook. That is not the case any longer. Today, image and product identification are very important.''
Business for thrifts has been tough the past few years. First, money market accounts sapped passbook savings deposits. Then a host of institutions from Sears, Roebuck to American Express began encroaching on thrifts' customers. And the growth of branch banking has meant that no institution could claim a neighborhood as its own. Harlem Savings, for instance, headquartered in midtown Manhattan, does most of its business on Long Island.
Last year Harlem Savings began studying ways to cope with the new world of financial supermarkets. One of the early conclusions was that it could not compete with the multibranch, full-service giants. Its future, Mr. McDougal and his staff concluded, was in retail banking. And that meant the main product must be customer-friendly.
''I'm the kind of guy who says 'have a good day' to the grouchiest guy I see on the train each morning,'' McDougal says. ''And I really am concerned when I see long lines or rudeness at the teller windows.''
He figured a name change should be the first order of business. He denies the word ''Harlem'' was a drawback to winning new customers. In fact, with 120 years of name identification in New York, McDougal says, the name ''Harlem'' was an asset and dumping it for ''General'' or ''Fidelity'' or ''Century'' seemed out of the question.
''We weren't running from the name,'' he says, ''but we wanted something universally accepted at the retail level, plus we had just acquired Century Savings, so we had to be more general. And finally we wanted a name that would indicate we are friendly and people-oriented.''
McDougal engaged Selame in January. Within two weeks, Joseph Selame recalls, the name ''Apple'' was hit upon. A bright red apple with two green leaves became the company logo and the slogan became ''We're Good for You.'' (Apple Computer had passed this way earlier, compensating for the coldness of computers with a folksy name.)
''We didn't want to give them a name that would make them sound like any other big granite elephant of a bank that reminds customers of bad times and invisible bankers,'' Selame says. ''We knew that the apple was a very friendly symbol, and New York is known as the 'Big Apple.' ''
The new name rapidly won staff support. By late March the board of trustees, after expressing some concern about the name sounding frivolous, decided that in fact it gave the institution a bright, youthful image. The name was changed May 16.
Although some of the older customers objected, McDougal claims that no accounts were canceled, and there have been no public charges that abandoning the word ''Harlem'' was racially motivated. The payoff was almost immediate, he says. In the first 33 business days after the name change, Apple Savings brought in 4,943 new accounts - more than three times the normal rate. During that time savings grew $116 million; for a corresponding period in 1982, Harlem Savings lost $26 million.
Choosing a new name, McDougal admits, is a surface-level act. More important changes are planned at Apple's core.
''We want to convey that we are not an inanimate institution,'' he says. ''You have a lot of nerve to ask a customer to do business with you and then force him to do it only on the lunch hour and make him wait an hour to get through the line. People like to do business with nice people, so we're working on customer relations - and on shortening those lines.''