CHICAGO -- When is a bank not a "bank?"
When the financial services company that owns it leaves the b-word out of the name.
Eager to snag much more than consumers' checking accounts, a few firms are opting to omit "Bank" from their brands as they market themselves increasingly as one-stop financial centers. It's a new tactic in the ongoing trend of banks trying to become more like retailers -- more personal, more convenient, more attuned to consumers and the competition.
Often the one-stop pitch uses just one word. Harris Bank, a regional bank with 190 branches, eliminated the word from its public name last fall and goes by simply Harris.
Similarly, all 1,900 Bank One branches in 14 states are being renamed Chase after JPMorgan Chase Bank N.A. (NYSE: JPM) acquired the Chicago banking giant last year and studied the bank-or-no-bank name issue for months. And Citibank, the retail and corporate banking unit of New York-based Citigroup Inc. (NYSE: C), the nation's largest financial institution, goes as just Citi when selling credit cards and mortgages.
Bankless names have become popular based on companies' consumer surveys which found that the word wasn't crucial for customers' loyalty or business.
"Research showed it's unnecessary to have that 'bank' moniker in there -- all it does is limit what you have in your mind about us," said Jen Dillon, a spokeswoman for Chicago-based Harris. "It positioned us as a retail bank in people's heads when we offer so much more."
It's not that bank is becoming a bad word per se; most are sticking with their existing nameplates. The goal is to appeal to younger clients and keep pace in a fierce industrywide competition that has stiffened since 1999, when federal legislation freed banks to sell insurance, investments and a full range of financial services. That change also made retail banking customers more valuable; banks can now sell them services that are far more profitable than traditional checking accounts.
"They may be dropping the name 'bank' to appeal to a broader audience, to appear more modern," said Tracy Mills, spokeswoman for the American Banking Association. "'Bank' has very traditional connotations. Gen X, Gen Y and others have a different approach to money."
The name-changing can be expensive -- signs and collateral materials must be replaced and the new name advertised -- but typifies the shift to a more customer-savvy mentality that is reshaping retail banking.
"Dropping the word 'bank' seems like a little move but it really is a culture change," said CEO Bill McCracken of Atlanta-based Synergistics Research Corp., whose firm researches the financial services industry. "It's telling their customers 'We're not a bank, we're a store."'
In fact, if eliminating "bank" doesn't get the message across, some companies believe calling a branch a "store" and treating it that way will. Numerous banks are doing just that, among them Commerce Bank, Umpqua Bank, US Bank, BankAtlantic and Washington Mutual.
Other changes slowly taking root: extended operating hours, more branches inside supermarkets and other stores and a trend toward more casual, inviting atmospheres as opposed to the traditional marble-floored lobbies.
"Bankers are starting to think more like retailers," McCracken said. "That includes longer hours, friendly-teller training, and 'How can we turn a foreboding teller counter into a please-come-in-and-linger atmosphere?' The McDonald's-Nordstrom mentality is starting to permeate the banking industry."
Commerce Bank is credited with being one of the first to apply retail strategies to banking. The unit of Cherry Hill, N.J.-based Commerce Bancorp (NYSE: CBH) says it models its branches after McDonald's (NYSE: MCD), Home Depot (NYSE: HD) and Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX) and hires executives from major retailers such as Target (NYSEL TGT), Old Navy and Victoria's Secret to ensure a strong focus on the consumer.
CEO Vernon Hill, who founded the company in 1973, latched onto the banker-as-retailer concept after having built McDonald's restaurants as a real estate developer.
Commerce, which has 330 locations on the eastern seaboard, now offers free coin-counting machines, free personal checking, seven-days-a-week banking and greeters in its branches. It also pays for research gleaned by thousands of "mystery shoppers," a technique borrowed from retailers.
"Our philosophy is this is a retailing business and we're about gathering low-cost deposits by giving the customer a great retail experience," Hill said in a telephone interview. "Customers want to bank with you not because you give them a better rate but because you give them a better retail experience."
Umpqua, based in Portland, Ore., is a West Coast version of Commerce with its own innovations in branches it refers to as community centers. Seeking to create neighborhood gathering spots, it serves its own brand of coffee, offers newspapers and periodicals to read, hands out an Umpqua chocolate with each receipt and has a CD-burning machine in the lobby for customers to download songs onto a customized Umpqua CD.
Washington Mutual Inc. (NYSE: WM), which uses the nickname WaMu, is another champion of casual. Youthful "concierges" wearing khaki pants and bank-logo T-shirts welcomed customers recently in Chicago at one of its more than 2,000 U.S. "retail banking stores," which forgo the traditional teller windows and high counters for a more personal approach.
Its Occasio concept -- Latin for "favorable opportunity" -- features branches with circular layouts and play areas, where children can have fun while their parents "shop."
Despite a positive public reception so far, experts say the customer-centric style has a long way to go before it becomes universal in the banking industry. But the "more than a bank" mentality may be here to stay, no matter the name or style used.
"Commercial banks that want to survive over the next five to ten years will have to evolve from providing services through transaction-oriented branches to branded retail stores," said Bill Hartnett, general manager of financial services strategy for Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT).
"Currently the bank is not a destination, but a bothersome errand. By creating a warm and welcoming environment where customer service representatives truly know their customers and provide valuable financial guidance, banks will become a destination spot."
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