These community banks know you never get a second chance to make a first impression. From Ergo Bank in Wisconsin to Happy State Bank in Texas, we uncover the roots of four banks’ eye-catching monikers—and offer tips for a successful rebranding.
By Katie Kuehner-Hebert
Community bankers know their bank’s name isn’t simply a name. Whether it signifies a bank’s values, specialty or location, a name is a window into the soul of a financial institution. It might evoke a feeling, a sense of stability or tradition, or it might signal that a bank isn’t just business as usual.
Here are the origin stories of four unique community bank names. They’ve all gone through a rebranding at some point in their history, all for different reasons, but they’ve got one thing in common: There’s no one else like them.
Serving on-the-go customers
For more than two decades, $91 million-asset Farmers State Bank’s board had been wrestling with the idea of changing the name of the community bank, which opened in 1910 in the agricultural community of Markesan, Wis.
“Directors kept saying that we needed to do something with the name,” says Kyle Witt, president and CEO. “There are 50-some other banks in Wisconsin with the word ‘farmers’ in their name, and we all got kind of lumped together. Management and I finally allocated money to have someone come up with something different.”
The name change was part of a larger rebranding effort, aided by a marketing consulting firm, that also resulted in a revamp of the community bank’s website. The consulting firm brainstormed names based on keywords that represented Farmers State Bank’s culture. This included its embrace of technology, such as digital banking and interactive teller machines that enable customers to talk to a remote bank staffer from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. via video chat.
“We settled on the name Ergo, short for ergonomic,” Witt says. The bank’s website explains further: “Efficient, accommodating and comfortable, Ergo is so much more than just a shortened form of the word ergonomic. As a bank, we ensure financial success through customer-friendly experiences. We outperform the expectations of customer satisfaction and that’s by design.”
The move away from Farmers State Bank also fit into Ergo Bank’s goal to expand into any markets in Wisconsin, such as Fond du Lac and Green Bay. “This is a long-term strategic plan, as I plan to be here for another 35 years,” Witt says.
The name, logo and color scheme were officially changed in March 2018. Initially, Ergo Bank printed both names on its letterhead, and staff had a lot of communication with customers to avoid confusion.
“Many people kept asking us, ‘Well, who bought you?’” Witt says. “We kept having to say, ‘No, it’s just a straight name change; everything else is staying the same.’”
Eventually, Ergo Bank dropped Farmers State Bank from its branding altogether. Witt admits some older customers didn’t like the name change. “However, most people told us that we did a great job and they liked our new name and logo, which includes an arrow after the bolded GO in Ergo, signifying people always on the go,” he says.
Witt advises other community banks considering a name change to think about what their community bank will look like in the future—“Not just what your bank may be doing five years from now, but 10 or 20 years from now,” he says—so the new brand can better withstand changes.
“Secondly, have a backbone and make a decision,” he says. “Not everyone is going to like the decision, but you’ve got to put your foot in the ground and believe in what you’re doing, or you’re never going to change.”
A community bank for all life’s events
In West Jefferson, N.C., $320 million-asset LifeStore Bank has undergone many name changes.
The community bank was founded in 1939 as the Ashe Building and Loan Association, but 12 years later, it expanded beyond its initial scope of lending and became Ashe Savings and Loan Association. In 1982, it obtained a federal charter and shortened its name to Ashe Federal Savings and Loan and then to Ashe Federal Bank. In the 1990s, the bank abbreviated Ashe Federal to AF Bank. The most radical change came in 2009, when it rebranded as LifeStore Bank.
“We were looking for a name that wasn’t commonly used in our markets,” says Judy Current, the community bank’s director of strategic growth and marketing, “and wanted it to be an umbrella. We were operating under multiple names and wanted one that would unify all of our operations. We did not want to use a common name that was a part of many other banks’ names.”
Before landing on LifeStore Bank as a name, the board of directors tried to find ways to tie the divisions together by riffing on the name AF Bank, from its former name Ashe Federal. For employees in Boone, N.C., AF stood for Appalachian First. For others in Alleghany County, AF stood for Alleghany First. The community bank’s insurance offices had names like Asheland Insurance, AF Brown Insurance and AF Blair Insurance. “We wanted one name that would work for all of our products and locations,” Current says.
Working with NewGround, a brand consulting group based in St. Louis, Mo., which specializes in working with banks, the bank’s board took “a retail approach” for the rebranding effort, studying customer service-focused retailers like Disney.
“We also wanted a name to reflect our business model, so we chose LifeStore Bank,” Current says. “[We’re] an organization that serves the consumer throughout their various life events. Life-changing events create a demand for different financial service products.”
The rebranding was part of a larger effort to be a resource for multiple financial services for the bank’s customers. “This name gives us a unique identity. We strive to make it easy to do business with us. Our employees are very personable, and our friendly branch interiors set us apart,” Current says.
“Rebranding takes way more time than just producing new materials,” she says. “There’s a whole cycle of how long it takes for people to adapt and then adopt. It’s been a learning experience for us.
“But we’ve had a lot of exciting things that have happened over the years since we did the rebranding,” she adds. “We’ve also implemented new systems and processes and, as a whole, we’ve experienced a lot of growth.”
Thinking of rebranding? Here are some guidelines
Walk the walk. “In today’s digital universe, having a name that no other bank can replicate, assuming you’ve trademarked it, is a core element to enhance brand equity,” says Becki Drahota, CEO of Mills Marketing in Storm Lake, Iowa. “The creative versus traditional name does carry with it a responsibility to walk the walk, in that if you make the name change but nothing in your culture brings that new name to life, you accomplish little.”
Look at the data. Before you make a decision on a name change, you need to determine whether existing customer data supports changing or keeping existing branding, says Jay Sedgwick, an account executive at Webb Mason Marketing in Hunt Valley, Md. “One client wanted to change their branding and advertising to reflect what they thought was their key demographic. Once they reviewed the data and realized their key demographic was more blue collar, they were shocked,” he adds. “We also support banks changing names if their key products or services change.”
Stay connected to your existing customers. If you’re rebranding because you’re expanding into new communities or marketing to different customers, find a way to be loyal to your existing customer base, Sedgwick says, adding that “it’s so much more expensive to acquire new customers than it is to retain existing customers.”
Test it on mobile. Remember the limitations of mobile devices and keep your new name as short as possible. “If the name wraps to a second line on a phone, it’s automatically a negative,” Sedgwick says.
Think beyond the dictionary. Panera Bread. Accenture. Rolex. Häagen-Dazs. Not one of these famous brand names meant anything before they were dreamed into existence. Thinking outside the box may be business jargon, but it can pay off.
Pony Express Bank
A historic name for a historic bank
Pony Express Bank was originally called Braymer Bank, named for the Missouri town where it was founded in 1890. A predominantly rural bank for more than a century, the community bank’s former owner decided in 1993 to branch out into St. Joseph, Mo., which was the eastern hub of the original Pony Express mail station. Scott Page, now president and CEO of the $179 million-asset community bank, says the name Braymer Bank wouldn’t resonate in St. Joseph, so the bank changed its name to Pony Express Bank as a nod to that town’s history. Fate had something else in store, however.
“The move to St. [Joseph] didn’t work out,” Page says, “so [leadership] then set their sights on the town of Kearney, [Mo.]. By this time, they had already committed to Pony Express Bank as the name. However, all three of these communities are within 50 miles of each other, so the name still fits for the trade territory.”
The community bank later expanded to Liberty, Mo., where its operations are now located, but it’s kept a branch in Braymer.
“Pony Express Bank is a family-owned bank, with a unique name, celebrating our 130th year in 2020,” Page says. “We support our community with our time, talent and treasure, and I certainly feel that the community responds in kind to our generosity.”
Happy State Bank
Making people smile
Happy State Bank was originally named First State Bank of Happy. Contrary to what you might think, neither name was the result of a modern rebranding exercise. Like many community banks, this one was named after the town in which it was founded—in this case, Happy, Texas. So why was the town named Happy?
“Before the town was settled, cowboys in the 1800s found one little creek in this flat dry area with no trees, and so they named it Happy Draw,” says J. Pat Hickman, CEO of the $3.8 billion-asset community bank, now based 35 miles away from Happy in Amarillo, Texas. “Then when the railroad came through, they established a depot to fill the engines with water, and they called it Happy. In the late 1800s, when the windmills came in, the town was settled, and the bank was founded in 1908. The town has a slogan, ‘The town without a frown!’”
First State Bank of Happy changed its name in 2004 when it opened a branch 80 miles north in Stratford, Texas, prompting a lawsuit by the First State Bank of Stratford because the names were too similar.
“Some on our staff thought we should rename it Happy State Bank, as many people in the town had always called us that, but me—the ‘marketing genius’—initially thought it was the most stupid bank name I had ever heard,” Hickman says. “So, I paid a consultant $25,000, and they presented 10 or 12 names that were just horrible.”
The name Happy State Bank was floated again. “The lady who owned this firm then looked at me and said, ‘With all due respect, you’re really, really wrong about not wanting that name,’” Hickman says. “‘Happy is the only word in the English language that people use every day with no negative connotations.’ And everyone in the board room was nodding their heads in agreement.” Hickman relented, and the name was changed to Happy State Bank. “It changed everything,” he says. “Our employees had bigger smiles on their faces, and our customers also smiled more. Now, I realize that I was an idiot.”
Today, the community bank has truly leaned into its name. It buys ads in the form of sticky notes on newspapers in many of its markets on all of the major holidays. The notes wish readers a happy New Year, Valentine’s Day or St. Patrick’s Day, with Happy State Bank’s name on the bottom.
The new name has helped the community bank expand into bigger markets, Hickman says. When Happy State Bank moved into Dallas seven years ago, the board looked for the most visible building on the Dallas North Tollway and rented a space just so the community bank could put up a huge sign on the building. Happy State Bank has replicated the strategy for other new branches in Texas.
“I do some public speaking around the state,” Hickman says, “and someone once introduced me as the CEO of arguably the best-known bank in Texas.”
Making their mark
These ICBA members know how to stand out, too.
- Friend Bank of Slocomb, Ala.
- Bank of Delight of Delight, Ark.
- Bank of England of England, Ark.
- Relyance Bank of Pine Bluff, Ark.
- Mega Bank of San Gabriel, Calif.
- Pee Dee Federal Savings Bank of Marion, S.C.
- Poppy Bank of Santa Rosa, Calif.
- Artisans’ Bank of Wilmington, Del.
- Green Dot Bank of Provo, Utah
- Roundbank of Waseca, Minn.
- Wahoo State Bank of Wahoo, Neb.
- Apple Bank for Savings of Manhasset, N.Y.
Katie Kuehner-Hebert is a writer in California.