What's In a Name? One Bank Found Out

September 27th, 2019

Atlantic_hero_imageV2.pngMore than 35 banks in the U.S. have some variant on the name “Union Bank.” Many are even in the same state: In Tennessee, for example, there are two “Union” banks — $199 million asset Union Bank, in Jamestown, and $81 million asset Union Bank & Trust Co., in Livingston — that have branches located within a 20-minute drive of one another.

This lack of differentiation, common in an industry where so many forms of the same name dot the marketplace, confuses customers and hampers growth goals.

Market confusion — both local and online — led Richmond, Virginia-based Union Bankshares Corp. to alter its name to Atlantic Union Bankshares Corp.

The bank’s January 2018 acquisition of $3.2 billion asset Xenith Bankshares extended its footprint into North Carolina and Maryland. But another Union Bank already operates in North Carolina, a $776 million asset bank in Greenville, prohibiting the use of the Union Bank & Trust brand for its six locations in the state. “That was immediately problematic,” says John Asbury, Atlantic Union’s president and CEO. “We had to operate under the Xenith bank brand down there, which creates all kinds of challenges.”

The February acquisition of Access National Corp. expanded the $17.2 billion asset bank’s presence in northern Virginia, creating further brand confusion with another bank: $19.9 billion asset United Bank, which has dual headquarters in Washington, D.C. and Charleston, West Virginia.

Not only are the names similar, but “the signage is almost a mirror image of our old signage,” Asbury remarks. “We even both used similar fonts — all-cap, all-black lettering, corporate colors are green. It was eerily similar.”

On top of these local challenges, customers were telling Asbury that they had accidentally opened accounts online with MUFG Union Bank, which is a unit of Japanese bank Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group and is based in Los Angeles. MUFG Union Bank’s web address is unionbank.com. As banking becomes increasingly digital, this aspect of brand confusion could spell trouble for a number of banks.

“Brand distinction is important in every channel; it just has a unique emphasis that comes out in the digital space,” says Duane Smith, Atlantic Union’s chief marketing officer. Customers know where their bank’s branches are, but it’s easy to visit the wrong website.

Atlantic Union needed a name that no other bank had.

Atlantic Union was established as Union Bank & Trust Co. in 1902. (It also was briefly named Union First Market Bank, from 2010 to 2015.) Keeping that brand equity was important to executives.

The leadership team also wanted to recognize its strategic growth goals. Having built “Virginia’s bank” and acquired locations to expand outside the state, Asbury and his team wanted to conquer the mid-Atlantic.

So, the new name needed to recognize the bank’s history and its future. It also needed to be “authentic,” says Asbury. “The use of actual words was important to us; I did not want us to be involved with some sort of synthetic, artificial, engineered, made-up name.”

Asbury gained the board’s support for a new name early on. The bank worked with a local ad agency to brainstorm possible names, and the leadership team picked those that best matched the bank’s vision. They tested those names in the marketplace to determine consumer appeal, repeating the process for the bank’s new logo.

Atlantic Union was the clear choice.

Asbury adds that implementation was exhaustive — in addition to obvious changes like signs and business cards, every bit of internal documentation had to be updated with the new name. The bank also wanted to ensure that customers understood that their bank had not been acquired — this was the same bank.

Smith convinced Asbury and Maria Tedesco, president of the bank unit, to appear in TV spots promoting the new name. “That probably played an important part in what we believe to have been the acceptance of the new brand, because we were very straight-up in terms of owning it and explaining it,” says Asbury.

All told, Atlantic Union spent roughly $6 million to complete its rebrand. Was it worth it?

“You have to understand, this is a cost of doing business,” says Asbury. The brand confusion, the inability to use its name in North Carolina, all hindered the bank’s strategy. “We did what needed to be done.”


Emily McCormick is the vice president of research for Bank Director, an information resource for directors and officers of financial companies.You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/ehmccormick or get connected on LinkedIn.