New Hybrid Union Bank Makes Hefty Investment in Logo Design

Times Staff Writer

When Union Bank pulls the wraps off its new corporate logo and signs today, it will unveil more than a new image.

The distinctive logo and bold signs symbolize the delicate attempt to combine two different banks into a new institution that blends the sometimes contradictory strengths of Union Bank and California First Bank.

And because the blending is so critical to the success of the closely watched merger, the new designs and signs are the fruits of an intense eight-month effort that cost $2 million and involved outside designers and even a handwriting expert.

"We had two really different banks that were after two different markets, so we really believe we are creating a new bank," said James R. Welty, a senior vice president of the new bank and former Cal First executive. "The signs say, 'Here is the new Union Bank.' "

The name of the merged bank is itself something of an oddity because it is the name of the bank that was acquired. The name of the purchaser, California First, will disappear from California banking.

The new Union Bank is the result of last year's acquisition of Los Angeles-based Union for $737 million by San Francisco's California First. It was a marriage of two institutions that differ in more than just marketing.

The former Cal First was 77% owned by Bank of Tokyo, and its management style reflected the painstaking, consensus-driven methods associated with the Japanese. It also has been very much an American consumer bank, with 135 branches in California specializing in checking accounts, home loans and savings accounts.

Union Bank was owned by Britain's Standard Chartered, which had pretty much left the Americans in charge. It has a reputation for rewarding employees' individual initiative and responding quickly to the needs of the medium-sized businesses that comprise most of its customer base.

The acquisition was the largest purchase of a U.S. financial institution to date by the Japanese, and it also represented an attempt by the Japanese to crack the lucrative market for corporate business from medium-sized companies, which tend to pay higher rates and fees than giant corporations.

Seishichi Itoh, Cal First's president and chief executive, vowed to go slowly with the merger in order to avoid losing the loyal customers of either institution. As a result, the banks have operated as separate institutions, even though the acquisition was completed last Oct. 31.

Today marks the beginning of what bank officials view as the operation of one bank. In order to dramatize the event, 600 new signs on bank offices have been covered with $100,000 worth of nylon bags, and the new logo has been kept under tight secrecy.

"People don't really give a whole lot of thought to bank names and signs, so we are trying to be as dramatic as we can," said Don Kinnaird, the bank's director of marketing.

A Los Angeles sign firm, Heath & Co., was hired to survey the 167 combined offices, come up with proposals for each location and ultimately make the signs. Signs at almost all of the branches will be changed, with the exception of the names atop the tallest Union Bank buildings. They will remain because it would be very expensive to replace them, and changes in local laws would mean that the new signs would have to be smaller.

While Heath was scouting locations and assessing needs, bank officials were developing the new designs for the signs and a new logo with Landor Associates, a leading image consulting firm in San Francisco that had done work in the past for Atlantic Richfield, Disney, 20th Century Fox and other big corporations.

Difficult Task

"They had pretty well made the decision to go with the Union Bank name, which is a little bit unusual since California First was the acquiring bank, but Union is a strong name," said Jerry L. Kuyper, the Landor associate who directed the Union project and came up with the name "Touchstone" for Disney's film division on an earlier project.

The task confronting Kuyper and the half-dozen designers who worked with him was fulfilling the client's need for an image that played to the strengths of two different institutions and still made its own bold statement.

An outside firm conducted research sessions with customers of both Union Bank and California First to determine the strengths of each institution and plumb the fears of customers over the merger.

Welty, the bank senior vice president, said the research discovered a universal feeling among customers of both banks: A merger is not good for anyone, but it is a fact of business today.

California First customers were afraid that what they considered the bank's friendly atmosphere would be lost in a more formal environment where preference would go to the business customers. A woman in San Diego worried that she could no longer pop her kids in the car and drive to the bank without getting dressed up.

At Union Bank, business customers were worried that they would be lost in a sea of people cashing paychecks and Social Security checks and that the responsive decisions on financial matters would vanish.

So the bank wanted to design an image that was both friendly and big--a sort of Jolly Green Giant of California banking.

Full of Symbolism

For a time, the Landor designers worked with the concept of a flower in front of a mountain range. "It looked more like a resort or the Sierra Club than a bank," said Kuyper.

Over several weeks, the image of a stylized eagle, sun and the words Union Bank in script evolved. Each component was designed to symbolize one of the attributes that the bank wanted, and some were subjects of considerable debate.

The stylized sun represents warmth and size, while the script is meant to convey a sense of integrity and personal service associated with a person's signature. The eagle connotes responsiveness.

Kuyper said some of the Japanese bankers were concerned that the eagle was too aggressive for a bank. They suggested using a crane, a bird that represents long life and happiness and is often used in Japanese marketing.

"I told them that the eagle is our bird, that it appears on the back of our money," Kuyper said.

In the end, the eagle's features were softened slightly, but he held the perch.

The delicacy of the script created for the logo, while deemed appropriate for bank documents and advertising, was not considered strong enough for big signs. So the more traditional block lettering appears on the buildings. A smaller form of the block letters was added to the logo to reinforce the name.

The "Union Bank" signature on the logo was created by Karen Smidth, a Landor designer. But before it was finally approved, the script was examined by a handwriting expert to make sure that there were no negative connotations to the style. The bank did not want someone analyzing the handwriting and deciding that it had the characteristics of a murderer--or forger.

"It's known in the trade as a disaster check," Kuyper said.

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