I don’t know a lot about a lot of things, but I know quite a bit about naming companies. That is because I had a major role in naming one.
What brought this to mind was the recent announcement of the proposed merger of BB&T Bank with Atlanta-based SunTrust Bank, creating what would be the nation’s sixth-largest bank with more than 3,000 branches and $442 billion in assets. The company will be headquartered in BB&T’s hometown of Winston-Salem. (Will the next bank headquarters to leave Atlanta please close the door?)
Subject to shareholder approval, the newly merged bank will be known as Truist. That has caused a stir on social media — what doesn’t cause a stir on social media? — and snarky comments in the media.
Other than being a silly name probably created by some hot-shot branding firm, it really doesn’t matter what the new bank calls itself. Let’s face it, BB&T is not a name that exactly soars. It is how it performs that matters.
Back to my role in the Name Game. When the old Bell System was broken up in 1982 by the federal government, seven companies (called Regional Bell Operating Companies, or RBOCs) were created, including the one in the Southeast, consisting of Southern Bell Telephone Company and South Central Bell. All were set to begin operating Jan. 1, 1984, as publicly held corporations. One of the first things we had to do, of course, was to come up with a name.
The divestiture set up a battle between our former parent AT&T and the RBOCs over the use of the Bell name and the Bell Symbol, clearly two of the most recognized names and logos in the U.S. AT&T said they were keeping both for themselves. The court overseeing divestiture said “no.” They would be made available to the nascent corporations.
Before that final decision was made, I had been tasked with coming up with a name and identification for our new corporation, which on its first day of business would be the eighth largest in the nation, with the third largest number of shareholders behind only AT&T and General Motors.
I spent a lot of time with branding firms in New York and we had tentatively arrived at the name Sunlink for the new company, replete with a lot of bright orange colors, which were all the rage at the time.
When the Bell name and logo became available, the name game changed. We had been told by financial analysts in New York they only had resources to cover perhaps three of the RBOCs, but that the company located in the Southeast was of particular interest because of all the growth in the region. We decided we would call ourselves BellSouth. We chose to make it one word instead of two and used the tag line, “One word says it all.” Clever, eh?
There was a lot of resistance from many of our employees to using “Bell” — too much of a reminder of the stodgy old Ma Bell — and “South” — too regional and too limiting. With the exception of Bell Atlantic and Southwestern Bell, who were thinking much as we were, the other RBOCs came up with fancy names: Nynex, Ameritech, U.S. West and Pacific Telesis.
That is when I learned the lesson about corporate names. It doesn’t matter what you call yourself as much as it does how you perform. At the time we were going through the naming exercise, one of the best-performing companies on the New York Stock Exchange was CSX, the rail transportation holding company. Not the most exciting name but the analysts certainly knew who they were.
The tremendous growth we were experiencing in Florida, North Carolina and the metropolitan Atlanta area said they would know us, too, if we performed up to analysts’ expectations financially and gave good service. We did. For the next nine years until I retired, BellSouth topped Fortune Magazine’s “Most Admired” list among telecommunications companies, including AT&T.
Before Truist sees the light of day, they are being sued by Truliant, a credit union based, ironically, in BB&T’s hometown of Winston-Salem. A suit filed in federal court in North Carolina alleges consumers might confuse the two names and products the credit union markets under the “Tru” prefix of its trademark. How all of that works out is still to be determined.
As for BellSouth and the others, it turned about to be a lot of hard work that didn’t matter in the long run. All were absorbed into the “new” AT&T or Verizon after a decade and a half and are no more.
But there were lessons learned and never forgotten. Give good service. Make money for your shareholders. Be a good corporate citizen. And don’t get hung up on the name. Don’t believe me? Ask Fifth Third Bank. They seem to be doing just fine, thank you.