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A Truist Story About the Perils Of Combining Company Names -- WSJ

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06/14/2019 | 02:48am EDT

What BB&T and SunTrust called their merged bank prompts head scratching

By Liz Hoffman and Rachel Louise Ensign 

What is Truist? It isn't the name of an artificial sweetener or a misspelled word in Shakespearean English, as some on the internet have posited.

It's the new name of the nation's sixth-largest retail bank.

BB&T Corp. and SunTrust Banks Inc., which announced plans to merge in February, rebranded the combined entity on Wednesday as Truist Financial Corp.

Not everyone approves. Among more than 1,700 voters in a Twitter poll conducted by trade publication American Banker, 11% said they loved the new name; 68% hated it.

"It sounds like a pharmaceutical drug, not something I would be happy to have on my checks," said Cory D. Raines, a lawyer in Atlanta who is a SunTrust customer. "Did y'all do any focus groups?" The bank, in fact, did many.

The reception online, said Dontá Wilson, Truist's incoming chief digital and client experience officer, has been "overwhelmingly neutral." That leaves an opening for the company to make a good impression with its products and customer service, Mr. Wilson said.

Bank mergers of the past have often combined the partners' names, as in the 2000 merger that created JPMorgan Chase & Co., or chosen the stronger of the two brands, as in the 1998 merger of Norwest Corp. with Wells Fargo & Co.

Truist took another approach, following a path blazed -- not without some public umbrage -- by companies such as Verizon Communications Inc. and Mondelez International Inc. It hired consultants to help make up a new name. The practice has expanded as companies seek out novel ways to stand out.

"You basically need to find a word that means nothing in every language, " said Andrew Essex, chief executive of Plan A, a collection of marketing agencies that has helped companies come up with new names. (Plan A didn't work on Truist.)

Plus, Mr. Essex said, you need a name "that is also capable of evoking pleasant feelings and hasn't been taken by an internet squatter."

BB&T and SunTrust needed a name that helped them shed any reputation of being stodgy old banks without alienating employees and customers.

The banks already had some well-established names, of course. BB&T's can be traced back to Alpheus Branch, who co-founded the bank in North Carolina after the Civil War. The name SunTrust was the product of a 1985 tie-up between Trust Company of Georgia and SunBanks Inc.

Even though the significantly larger BB&T acquired SunTrust, the deal was billed as a merger of equals. That required many concessions toward equality, including choosing a new name and headquarters city.

Home will be Charlotte, N.C., geographically between SunTrust's Atlanta headquarters and BB&T's in Winston-Salem. The combined bank boasts $324 billion in deposits and a branch network across the southeastern U.S.

In the new name, the "tru" part is meant to evoke "staying true" to the banks' legacy of taking care of clients, Mr. Wilson explained.

And the "-st"? That means "standing for better" communities and services, he said.

In a video announcing the name, a diverse cast of mostly young people stroll, ride scooters and clutch coffee cups in the middle of a Main Street with an Anytown, U.S.A., feel. Nobody sets foot in an actual bank branch.

Tori Miner of Interbrand, the firm hired to help come up with a name, said in a video that it gathered suggestions from employees through its "More Than a Name" game. The video shows them wearing name tags and sorting through flashcards of animals like eagle and elephant. One scene has a white board that reads "loss of identity," among other things.

The naming process was a "great balance of creativity and strategy, of science and art, and of the heart and the mind," Ms. Miner, whose title at Interbrand is director of verbal identity, said in the video.

She told The Wall Street Journal that the name, chosen from a list of thousands of potentials, "doesn't sound like a bank we've seen or experienced before -- and that was our aim."

Plenty of other companies have consulted their way into similar reboots. Mondelez, which was spun out of Kraft in 2012, chose a resilient, if in some eyes regrettable, portmanteau of "monde," the Latin word for "world, " and an etymologically vague adaptation of "delicious." The influential investor Nelson Peltz once said it "sounds like a disease."

Sometimes it goes the other way. When Goldman Sachs Group Inc. was looking for a name for its new consumer bank in 2016, a consulting firm suggested Muni, a play on "money" that embraces Silicon Valley's occasional flexibility with spelling.

Bank executives awkwardly pointed out that they already had a bustling "muni" department -- selling municipal bonds on behalf of local governments. Goldman chose the name Marcus.

Another example: In its infancy, Google was called BackRub.

"People made fun of 'Google' when they first heard of it," said Mr. Essex of Plan A. "At a certain point, things just harden into permanence. As long as it doesn't mean human sacrifice in another language, it's going to be OK."

Truist has a long way to go until it is lodged in consumers' brains. When BB&T and SunTrust announced their new name, investors flooded bank analysts with unsolicited emails mostly complaining about it. "If they had named it BB Trust, then it could have been a jazz guitarist," said Mike Mayo, a bank-stock analyst at Wells Fargo.

Nathan Arthur, the 40-year-old owner of the @Truist Twitter handle, was among those surprised. For years, friends suggested that he try to sell it, but he couldn't fathom the commercial potential, even after he sold the corresponding website, Truist.com, where he blogged about family, politics and technology.

The handle @TruistFinancial was registered on Twitter this month.

"I didn't think anyone would want it," said Mr. Arthur, a software engineer in Cleveland. "But here we are."

--Charlie McGee contributed to this article.

Stocks mentioned in the article
ChangeLast1st jan.
BB&T CORPORATION 1.00% 46.68 Delayed Quote.7.76%
FIRST FINANCIAL CORP -1.42% 40.98 Delayed Quote.3.54%
SUNTRUST BANKS 0.96% 60.93 Delayed Quote.20.80%
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EBIT 2019 3 579 M
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Yield 2019 3,47%
P/E ratio 2019 11,1x
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