Naming In The News

FNB, Virginia Financial Group have Identity Issues

February 27, 2008
By Jeff Sturgeon
The Roanoke Times

New names are not new to banking. For example, WaMu, TomatoBank and Red Canoe.

When a bank named FNB, which stands for First National Bank, merges with one named Virginia Financial Group, what do you call it?

First National Group?

Could be. But it doesn't sound much like a bank.

Virginia National Bank?

Nope. It's taken.

The mystery will be lifted later this week when executives of FNB Corp. of Christiansburg and Virginia Financial, based in Culpeper, are expected to go through with their approved merger plan.

It will combine FNB branches across Southwest Virginia with VFG-owned locations of Planters Bank and Trust Co. and Second Bank & Trust, which are prominent in north-central Virginia. Shareholders adopted the plan in a close vote earlier this month. FNB spokesman Thomas Becher said the new name will be announced soon.

Until that happens, the 88,000 customers of FNB are left to wonder.

Other banks have gone down this road before.

In the Los Angeles area, there's TomatoBank. It used to be InterBusiness Bank, according to Strategic Name Development Inc., a brand consultancy in Minneapolis.

But the company wanted something more recognizable that brings to mind images of growth, multiculturalism and health.

"Try to forget it," TomatoBank's chairman and chief executive officer, Stephen Liu, said in a 2006 press release. "You can't."

In the Pacific Northwest, Weyerhaeuser Timber Company Federal Credit Union out of Longview, Wash., became Red Canoe Credit Union.

Four red canoes sit on a shimmering lake on its Web site.

This is not to say that two banks can't simply combine their names and operations following a merger.

Fifth Third Bank reflects the 1908 merger of The Fifth National Bank and The Third National Bank. It's the Cincinnati financial institution that happens to handle Roanoke's much-in-the-news city-issued credit cards. Shortening is an option that worked for Washington Mutual, one of the largest banks in the country. It now goes by WaMu.

Creating a whole new word is not off-limits in the banking industry.

Wachovia is the recognizable name of the Charlotte, N.C., megabank. It is derived from Wachau, a term Moravian explorers gave to land on which they settled in North Carolina, where the bank was formed in 1879.

Crestar had a good run before it merged into SunTrust.

Daniel Hamrick, a member of the board of directors of FNB, said if the name must be changed -- he opposes the merger and the name change -- then a name such as New River Valley National Bank would deserve consideration. However, as Hamrick knows, the combined bank appears likely to stay away from a name with a Virginia geographic reference because it intends to enter new markets in North Carolina.

Bill O'Connor of The O'Connor Group -- a marketing, public relations, advertising and design firm in Roanoke -- said he thinks the name is less important than the marketing of the name.

Xerox had little meaning to consumers when The Haloid Co. adopted it in 1961, but a large marketing investment, coupled with the company's success, contributed to its becoming a recognizable brand, he said. Roanoke-based Valley Bank, which opened in 1995, and HomeTown Bank, which opened in 2005, are two more recent and local examples of that phenomenon, he said.

O'Connor said whatever it is, the new name should reflect well on the financial acumen of FNB and Virginia Financial. Themes of solidarity and prudence come to mind.

And that might be why Wauwatosa Savings Bank in Wisconsin is considering such new names as Granite Bank, Security First or WaterStone as its new name. Playing it cautious, the bank is taking a survey of customers.