Is it time to rebrand your community bank?

(L-R) Cara Roberson, John Owen, Amanda Fine, Diane James, Alex Green and Candace Colvard were all involved in SimplyBank’s rebranding. Photos by Dan Henry

Some community banks are taking a cue from consumer products and marketing companies as they rebrand with catchy new names they believe are more memorable and better represent their values as an organization.

By Julie Kendrick

Many decades ago, when many community banks were founded, no one worried too much about what their names ought to be. If there was already a “First State Bank” around the corner, then a newcomer might choose something like “First National Bank” as a name instead. But the changing consumer and financial landscape has seen community bankers trying to think more like marketers in other industries, seeking to rebrand themselves with names that are creative, clever and memorable.

We spoke with a few community banks that have recently gone through a name change. They told us about their reasoning for the new names, what’s most important to keep in mind when embarking on a rebrand initiative and some smart, practical tips for those who might have a name change in their future.

An analysis conducted by Tupelo, Miss.-based marketing agency Mabus found that most banks in the U.S. “retain names from an era before deregulation, fast-paced M&A and growing footprints.”

After creating a spreadsheet of current bank names, the agency found that nearly two out of three banks use one of these top five words in their name: State (18%), First (15%), National (12%), Trust (10%) and Savings (9%). The next 15 words in the list appear in nearly half of all U.S. bank names: Company, Community, Farmers, Citizens, Federal, County, Loan, Peoples, Association, Security, American, Merchants, Valley, City and United.

The analyzed bank names share just 900 core words, a number that’s only about 0.5% of the 171,476 active words in the English language, according to the Oxford Dictionaries.

Yet banks are beginning to think about all those other words they could use—or perhaps even using some names they make up themselves.

Setting off on the renaming journey

Verimore Bank changed its name from First Missouri Bank earlier this year.

How did the community banks we spoke to know that it was a good time to undertake the search for a new name? Each has a unique set of issues and goals that led them to the path of a complete rebrand, but there are some commonalities.

Verimore Bank in Brookfield, Mo., for example, changed its name from First Missouri Bank in August. “We did some market research and conducted customer and stakeholder focus groups as part of our brand assessment process,” says Kristie Stuewe, chief executive officer and president of the $442 million-asset community bank. “We wanted a name that said more about our commitment to our customers and who we are than geography. The First Missouri Bank name served us well for many years, but neither ‘First’ nor ‘Missouri’ stands out, and that name was selected long before we expanded our footprint to counties that border other states.”

In the case of $700 million-asset SimplyBank in Dayton, Tenn., there was a need to bring three organizations—Community National Bank, First Bank of Tennessee and Advanced Banking Services—under one brand roof. “We had a different set of examinations for each company, which was inefficient, and my job has been to find efficiencies,” says CEO John Owen.

In addition, the bank planned an expansion into bigger urban markets and felt that a new name would help with that effort. “We wanted to be identified as a bank that could offer a full suite of services,” Owen says.

Once the decision is made, how does a community bank go about choosing a new name? For the team at SimplyBank, the process began with hiring an agency, Maycreate, in Chattanooga, Tenn. The agency conducted branding sessions with the leadership team and then created a list of 200 names that was culled to the top 30.

Southern National Bancorp became Primis in 2021.

“We did more exercises around those names, meditating about who we wanted to be,” Owen says. “We pretty much unanimously picked SimplyBank. We want to be the everyday person’s bank, and we want to be front and center with our understanding that no one wants complications in banking, especially these days.”

Keeping brand promises

Southern National Bancorp of Virginia, Inc., known as Sonabank, rebranded itself as Primis in 2021. Ann-Stanton Gore, executive vice president, chief marketing officer of the $3.24 billion-asset community bank in Glen Allen, Va., offers this advice for those going through the name search process: “Be observant. Find a gap or problem to solve. Determine what the brand will stand for and make a promise—and then everything you do should tie back to that brand promise.”

When River Valley Bank in Wausau, Wis., decided to merge with its digital-only web bank, IncredibleBank, Kathy Strasser, executive vice president, chief operating officer and chief information officer of the $1.8 billion-asset bank, said the decision on which name to choose was easy. “How many ‘River’ bank names already exist? Too many,” she says.

So, the team went with a name Strasser describes as exciting, different and memorable, launching the rebrand in fall 2019.

When River Valley Bank in Wausau, Wis., merged with its digital-only web bank, IncredibleBank, it kept the more memorable name.

“We looked outside the walls of banking at name brands that failed because they didn’t change,” she says, “and we also studied brands that achieved greater success because they recognized change was inevitable and took advantage of it. They were willing to pivot, and so were we.”

For the team at Verimore, the search for a new name was guided by two criteria: The name had to reflect the bank’s core values, and it had to be unique. “Most of the names we vetted met the first criteria, but not the second,” Stuewe says. “We got creative and tried different combinations of word roots to create a new name. We like ‘veri’ for truth and honesty and ‘more’ to indicate what customers can expect from us.”

Living up to the name

A new name brings with it an implicit brand promise, Gore says. “Primis is Latin for ‘first,’ and that name symbolizes our vision for never settling for less than being number one,” she explains. “We take the word ‘first’ seriously around here, and we’ve centered on putting first things first. Everything we’ve created, written and done has our personality of being an approachably charismatic, simply smart, dynamic brand.”

SimplyBank’s Owen also understands that a bold name requires equally bold customer commitments. “The challenge was to have our products team make sure the products and processes were as simple as possible,” he says. “It’s a high bar, which we recognized up front, and it’s been a challenge at times, but we’re getting there. Our goal is to offer big bank resources and services in a community bank.”

Having a strong leadership commitment to the change makes everything easier, says Alex Green, directing marketing, communications officer at SimplyBank. “This can’t be a half-hearted process, so your leaders need to be on board,” he says. “It requires everyone to ask themselves hard questions and sometimes discover hard answers. The right leadership needs to be on the forefront, and they need to give the process time.”

“We’re going to continue to be a bank where customers can expect us to know their name,” Stuewe says, “but we’re going to emphasize that our customers don’t need to choose between friendly, professional in-person service and the easy self-service they want 24 hours a day. We’re going to be the bank for the generations that want banking to feel familiar and for the generations that want banking to integrate easily into their routines anytime, anywhere.”

Moving forward

As great as your community bank’s new name might be, keep in mind that everything you do should be an opportunity for continuous improvement, including branding. “We rolled out our new name in 2018, and then we tweaked it in 2021,” Green says. “We didn’t do a full rebrand or wholesale changes, but we updated the tagline and added some new elements. The world changes, your community changes, and you can’t be afraid to change with them. We’re very conscious that we’re a community bank, and we’re proud of it. We’ve been around 132 years, and our intention is to be a strong, independent bank for the next 132 years.”

For many leaders, a refreshed name is viewed as an opportunity to build on the legacy of a valued institution. “Our refreshed name will help us communicate our commitment to our customers,” Stuewe says. “They won’t have to choose between the service we’ve provided for 88 years as a community bank and the digital and remote conveniences that make a banking experience easier than ever. The process of renaming the bank has reinforced that message internally and has shaped our marketing message externally.”

“People bank with you because of your products, ease of use and ultimately the service they receive,” IncredibleBank’s Strasser says. “For community banks to survive, we need to identify our market focus, be tech savvy, have great staff and maintain focus on the customer.”

Associations are changing, too

It’s not just banks that are taking a fresh look at the meaning and mission behind their names. The Independent Community Bankers of Minnesota (ICBM), an ICBA state affiliate that was organized in 1962, has a mission to provide community banks with the resources and advocacy they need to remain independent, grow their banks and benefit their communities.

As the association considered initiatives to make its work more visible to the general public, it knew there was a branding problem. A Google search of “ICBM” led to pages of data on intercontinental ballistic missiles. The association needed a new identifier that would allow it to speak to the public, convey a better sense of what it does as an organization and be found more easily during web searches. The association’s leadership chose the new name BankIn Minnesota, which is not only a more descriptive title but also a call to action for state residents to make local banks a priority for their businesses.

“It all goes back to the ‘why,’” says Jim Amundson, president and CEO of BankIn Minnesota. “You need to make sure you stay clear on your reason for changing, and you need to encourage feedback from your stakeholders and key decision makers.” For Amundson and his team, the rebranding work was an effort that began in late 2020 and culminated with an announcement at the association’s 2022 convention.

“Now, when I tell even non-industry people what our name is, they can remember it and understand what we’re trying to accomplish,” he says.

While Amundson’s community banking association is one of the first nationwide to go through a significant name change, he wonders if it may have started a trend. “We’ve heard from others with some initial interest who want to know more about how we did it,” he says.

When renaming, communication matters

There’s more to a new name than just choosing it. It’s important to communicate the change clearly, effectively and far enough in advance so that employees, customers and other stakeholders all feel as if they’re part of the change.

For SimplyBank in Dayton, Tenn., that meant telling employees first. “We wanted them to have ownership instead of just feeling as if they were in the audience,” CEO John Owen says. “We provided education and talking points, so that every employee knew what we were doing and could share that information with confidence whenever a customer asked about it.”

“We conducted an internal ‘fear assessment’ regarding the name change,” says Kathy Strasser, EVP, COO and CIO of IncredibleBank in Wausau, Wis. “We wanted to understand employees’ fears so we could address each one. … [It’s] important for everyone to understand the ‘why’ behind the change.”

IncredibleBank took its communications campaign to extended stakeholder audiences. “We invited our regulatory agencies, the FDIC and the Wisconsin DFI [Department of Financial Institutions] into our bank, where we shared our story, market data and reasons behind our diversification and name change,” Strasser says. “We wanted to bring them along so they understood it from the beginning.”

When it comes to effective communications, community banks need to consider all possible customer touchpoints and align them with the rebrand. One example of casting a wide net for those touchpoints comes from Verimore in Brookfield, Mo. “The initial rebrand included changing all collateral material, putting new signs on buildings and launching a redesigned website,” says Kristie Stuewe, CEO and president. “We’ve followed up on that with the launch of a weekly blog, a redesigned debit card with a design that’s unique to us and several customer events. We’ve also increased our social media presence by adding Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn to our Facebook presence.”

Julie Kendrick is a writer in Minnesota.