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Howard Green

Change the signs, boys Add to ...

It's time for Canada's banks to change their signs and wave the Maple Leaf. For years, they've promoted the use of letter-only, alphabet-soup names. It's the "no fixed address" approach, presumably to look more global. But now that they're big man on the world banking campus, they can brag about their heritage rather than hide it.

The stately Royal Bank of Canada has been RBC Royal Bank while Toronto-Dominion Bank preferred TD Bank Financial Group. Let's face it: When you buy banks in the U.S., as these two did in recent years, you don't want to rub it in the faces of Americans - particularly since they can't come up here and buy ours.

So they went and got themselves international code names. And they're not the only ones. Think HSBC or UBS. Unless you're from Switzerland or a banking aficionado, you might not have known the latter is Swiss. Then there's RBS, Royal Bank of Scotland, now largely owned by the people of Britain.

These neutered names give banks an air of international intrigue, a secret-agent-man feel. Canadian banks, when they've crossed the border, have wanted to slip into a kind of London Fog trench coat, indicating a "we're from everywhere" identity. No doubt it took years of high-level deliberation, focus groups and hours of billable consulting time to come up with this ABC, do-re-mi, global branding strategy.

But now, Canadian banks have more reason to be proud than ever. Listen to every bank CEO, as well as federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, tell you how well our banks have held up during the global financial meltdown.

And they're right. Even the World Economic Forum has trumpeted how great Canadian banks are compared with those in the rest of the world. Our banks, after all, haven't taken any sugar from Daddy like that Troubled Asset Relief Program money down south.

Meanwhile, look at those once gung-ho, aggressive U.S. banks, the ones that were allowed to merge and get all those economies of scale that made Canadian bankers envious - American bankers are back on training wheels after they loused it up for the rest of the world.

So, what about the branding of Canada's banks now? Take Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. What a regal and safe whiff that big, clunky name gives off rather than the sound of hard-charging CIBC.

I can see the meetings now. The consultants come in with their PowerPoint locked and loaded, full of charts and graphs on the research they've done on Canada's brand abroad, particularly in banking. The new message: There's no place like home. Besides, they argue, wouldn't those terrified American depositors like to know their money is in a safe, Canadian-run bank? Wouldn't people in New Jersey now love to see they're putting money in the Toronto-Dominion Bank rather than the blander-sounding TD? Wouldn't folks in South Carolina be relieved as they drive up to the Royal Bank of Canada rather than the camouflage represented by just RBC?

And lo and behold, Royal is onto it. In The Wall Street Journal recently, there was a half page ad from "RBC, Royal Bank of Canada." Proudly displaying its full Canadian name, the bank has also been sponsoring the ticker on CNBC.

You can almost hear the directive from head office: "Get out there and change the signs, boys."

Howard Green is anchor of Headline and Market Call Tonight with the Business News Network.

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