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Name changes not a panacea, but can be a good start to growth

Namechanges can breathe new life into financial institutions, but they rarelyhappen without a healthy dose of discomfort.

"Ofall the projects I've ever seen — other than a core database conversion — it isthe most disruptive thing, the most painful thing, that an organization willever undertake," Jeffry Pilcher, publisher of the online publication TheFinancial Brand, told S&P Global Market Intelligence.

Pilcher, who has workedwith more than 35 credit unions on name changes, said rebranding is often notmotivated by growth. Sometimes old names are tied to dying or dead employeegroups, companies or industries. "It looks like a growth play from theoutsider's point of view, but really what it is often is astop-the-hemorrhaging play," he said.

Pilchersaid in the credit union space other typical scenarios found with name changesinvolve a dying or defunct sponsor. For example, a credit union might be tiedto an air force or army base that has recently closed. Another typical caseinvolves legal issues or trademark protection. In those situations, thesponsoring companies may have an entity out of its control but using its name,which can lead to complications.

Butfor growth-minded credit unions, a name change is often needed to let thegreater community know that they can, in fact, join. At the same time, the newname has to let legacy members know that they are not being abandoned, Pilchersaid.

Washington,Pa.-based Chrome Federal CreditUnion was founded in 1971 as Washington SteelEmployees Credit Union. It later took on a community charter and changed itsname to Washington Community Federal Credit Union. But in April2015 it chose thename Chrome because the moniker felt "strong and bright," accordingto its website. "Washington Community Federal Credit Union is amouthful," the website says. "It's tough to say, tough to write andhard to remember. We were also getting confused with the many other banks andcredit unions in the area that have the word Washington in their name."

Chromesaw membership growth of 9.67% and loan growth of 10.06% in 2015, according toS&P Global Market Intelligence data. President and CEO ChristopherGeorge said in an interview that Chrome has changed more than justits name. The company has flipped its model upside down, he said. Its revamped"stores" are similar to the Umpqua Bank model and feature no teller lines butinstead a place where customers can get a free cup of coffee, use the Wi-Fi andhave a conversation about their finances.

InFebruary 2015, New Mexico Educators Federal Credit Union itself to .The Albuquerque, N.M.-based credit union saw 2015 membership growth of 6.34%and loan growth of 18.17%. Anneliese Elrod, seniorvice president of strategic marketing and development, said the company didresearch for more than 10 years and found that the primary issue surroundingthe name was confusion over eligibility to be a member. "Even our existingmembers were confused about whether they could refer the credit union to theirfriends and family," she said.

Thename Nusenda was a newly created term because the ability to obtain a trademarkwas a big consideration. The "senda" part of the name is Spanish for"track" or "path" while the first part of the name was areference to New Mexico and is a play on the word "new," Elrod said.

Thusfar reaction to the new name has been mixed. The company had the old name formore than 30 years and some members were fond of it, while others took to thenew name right away. "It's always a mixed bag whenever you change aname," Elrod said.

Pilchersaid name changes in many cases do not lead to robust growth. "It's moreoften that you're looking at what was negative growth and then they reverse itand basically stabilize the patient," he said. Pilcher isoften asked by struggling companies what will happen to the return oninvestment after a name change. "Well how does the ROI of you not dyingsound," he said. "Because that's what is often the case."

Pilcherpointed to Burbank, Calif.-based Logix Federal Credit Union as an example of a creditunion that did not have a brand in decline but one that maybe was not asvisible as it once was. The credit union was founded as the Lockheed AircraftEmployees Federal Credit Union in 1937 but changed its name to Logix in 2012."We chose the name Logix because it is distinctive, memorable, andsuggests a smarter, more logical banking choice," President and CEO DavidStyler said at that time.

In2011 — the year before the name change —membership growth for Logix was 11.00%and loan growth was 6.99%. In 2012, membership growth slipped to 6.54% and loangrowth to 4.56%, but by 2015 membership growth rose to 12.50% and loan growthto 19.37%.

Chrome'sGeorge said the credit union wanted to go after a segment of the populationthat would only visit the branches occasionally and would do the vast majorityof its banking online. It found out through its research that young, suburbanmothers were the company's ideal customer. "We built our brand around thesoccer mom," he said. Chrome hired a company called Ideas in Focus tovalidate the strategy. The company did 300 interviews of existing members andthe general public and found that the ideal members would be predominantly femaleand fit into many of the boxes associated with young, active mothers today.

Thecredit union's new signage just says Chrome because the research showed thattacking "credit union" onto it was not only confusing but did notmean much to most people. George said the credit union expected about 10% to15% member loss with the name and strategy change but have only lost a"couple hundred" members out of 12,000. "It really wasn't thatbad," he said. "We had one older member send us a two-page letterthat said 'this has nothing to do with the original Washington Steel,'" hesaid.

ForNusenda, Elrod said theresponse in terms of new membership and deposits came in even quicker than thecredit union had expected. "So for us, while there was some pain during thename change itself, the after-effects have been almost universallypositive," she said.

Elrodsaid research ahead of the change was critical, but the company still heardsome grumbling from a few members after it changed the name. "If you'vedone your research and you know your membership pretty well there's lots ofupside to that temporary downside," she said.

Butchanging the name alone is not enough, Pilcher said. Financial institutionshave to put some marketing muscle behind it to make it work, and there is a lotof expense at the beginning of the process. He said a good rule of thumb isthat companies need to allocate about .1% of total assets to marketing in orderto stay competitive. "You can have the best name in the world — you canchange your name to Nike — and it's not going to matter without marketingbehind it," he said.