Let us begin with an understatement: The economy is in a bad way. No doubt you’re aware that one of the first casualties was Merrill Lynch, whose acquisition by Bank of America was just the first of several since.
With our brains perpetually attuned to the branding and cultural implications of such events, we got to thinking about what the buyout means for Merrill’s culture and identity. Are they still Merrill Lynch?
This question resonates culturally and psychologically, but also quite literally. A company’s title is hugely important in galvanizing employees and giving them a sense of identity – especially in bleak times like these, during which employees most seek a sense of purpose and unity - in addition to the associations a name holds in the minds of stakeholders and external audiences.
ML had built a sterling name for itself; in terms of OD and brand strategy, it generally seemed to be doing a lot of things right. The Merrill Lynch name reflected its founders’ personal investment in the success of their partnership: Merrill’s credo emphasized having "no fear of failure, provided I use my heart and head, hands and feet — and work like hell."
Bank of America’s name is more direct, contemporary, and emphatic about expansive geographic reach. Its name is not “whom,” but “where,” and it works for them. Merrill is Wall Street elite; B of A the Starbucks of ATM’s. And while they both fit under the umbrella of financial services, they are not necessarily culturally compatible.
What can we learn from AIG’s less-than-seamless buyout of 21st Century? In the midst of a name change from 21st to aig direct, a government rescue package and an infamous corporate retreat may have sullied both names irreparably.
We don’t predict a similar fate for BofA or ML, but it would be a shame if a name considered “a sonorous bit of Americana” by the New York Times were lost in the acquisition shuffle.
Although B of A Chief Executive Ken Lewis assures us internal changes will be minimal, what remains to be seen is whether the once-mighty Merrill will become just another state in B of A’s union, relegated to just another department in the country’s biggest bank.