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Garland Pollard writes about media, branding and technology from Sarasota, Florida. His website is America’s authority on legacy brands. A native of Virginia and the former editor of Virginia Living magazine, by day he is Director of Communications for the Florida diocese of the... More
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  • Wells Fargo's Abbot Downing Takes On Old-Line Trusts 0 comments
    Apr 2, 2012 11:28 PM | about stocks: WFC, MTB, BEN, BAC

    Northern TrustLast week, I was in a Wells Fargo branch, looking at a beautifully produced booket/story of the company. It included an explanation of how it ran stagecoaches and ran money to the West, and detailed many of the innovations of the hundreds of banks that made up what is now Wells Fargo. Inside the leaf was a double spread of all of the banks that were merged to make Wells Fargo; it seemed to be a very complete list.

    The message? What a company with history, and a sense of itself, and its past. Wells Fargo is known for its archives, and they have put them to good use to help sell the longstanding trustworthiness of the company.

    But all the goodwill was undone today with the launch of Abbot Downing, a trust company for high net worth folks who bank with Wells Fargo. The Abbot Downing name apparently comes from the carriage makers that made Wells Fargo's carriages oh so long ago. The two names have nothing to do with banking, nothing more than a marketing ploy. Perhaps there are worse things (such as one of those contrived names), and this name has a good chance of succeeding because Wells Fargo has so many customers that it can market to.

    In a Marketwatch story, division president James Steiner said that Abbot Downing would do lots of things for its clients, not just investments. "The firm is trying to differentiate itself by offering broad services that cover both soft (doing family histories) and hard skills (creating very complex investment portfolios)."

    But it missed something. Authenticity. Banks are different from soft drink companies and fashion lines. They are companies that you trust with your most important possession, your money.

    The move is reminiscent of SunTrust, and its odd experiment with a brand called Alexander Key (See 2002 Inside Business story.) SunTrust in 2002 created the Alexander Key brand for its investment subsidiary. Like Abbot Downing, it was cooked up, apparently taken from an old president of the company, and in turn, the Alexander Key brand was cooked in a few years. Now SunTrust uses the Robertson Humphrey sub-brand for its investments, just as BB&T uses the Scott & Stringfellow brokerage name.

    It reminds me of department stores that come up with WASPy sounding names for their store brands, in the hope that people will think that the brand is something old.

    Abbot Downing will have to produce incredible results in its trust services department to compete with the other older, established banking brand names that have been trusted over generations.

    Some of the biggest names include (with their year of founding) :

    • 1853: U.S. Trust, the trust company founded in the 1850s that is now part of Bank of America.
    • 1907: Bessemer Trust is an invented name, a nod to Bessemer, the steel innovator, but that name had some integrity as Henry Phipps was working with Andrew Carnegie's money when he established the firm at the turn of the century.
    • 1899: Northern Trust founded in Chicago.
    • 1903: M&T now owns Wilmington Trust, with roots in Delaware and T. Coleman duPont.
    • 1931: Fiduciary Trust, now part of Franklin Templeton.
    • 1935: The Whittier family of California establishes Whittier Trust (oil $$).
    And across the U.S., there are dozens of small, family run trust companies that have devoted followings. For instance, Burke & Herbert (1852) of Alexandria has its own trust department. And there are hundreds of these across the nation.

    Surely the name tested well, though I am not sure how many ultra rich folks would switch to a bank name that was created to "sound" rich and "historic." Furthermore, you don't want the word "down" in any brand that has to do with investments. It has bad juju, kind of like when American Idol contestants sing songs about "going home."

    This is but another annoyance for those of us who hate the constant churning of our bank names. Can we have a bank that is not a manufactured "brand" but derived from the names of bankers or places? Places like Philadelphia and Boston and New York and Chicago and Detroit and other centers of commerce of the 20th century?

    Or maybe the company could go back into the old names that made up Wells Fargo, and dredge up something more interesting:

    • Perhaps Crocker Bank and Trust? Connotes old California, as well as that Patty Hearst bit of history. An old nightclub is apparently using the Crocker name for a nightspot in L.A.
    • Bank of North America, though probably difficult to use because it is so generic, was a predecessor company of Wells Fargo, and among the first federal banks in the U.S. The original location is still part of Wells Fargo's empire.
    • A.G. Edwards and Wheat, predecessor investment companies of Wells Fargo and Wachovia, might be better names. Wheat is still magic in the South and A.G. Edwards is well-known nationally.

    Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.

    Stocks: WFC, MTB, BEN, BAC
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