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By Published on .

Ask most consumers about the name AXA and they're as likely to conjure up airport codes as insurance companies.

And that's just fine with Edward D. Miller, president-CEO of Equitable Cos., the 140-year-old insurer that's about to change its name to AXA Financial: He wants a clean slate.

"Equitable is a company with a great history, but it's still an insurance company," Mr. Miller said. "It's not a credible brand for a fully integrated financial planning operation."

In the two years since he joined Equitable from Chase Manhattan Corp., Mr. Miller has been working to recast Equitable's insurance agents as financial advisers. On Sept. 4, the day after the corporate name change becomes official, he will launch a $40 million advertising campaign to promote AXA Advisors, its renamed agent sales force.


TV spots via agency Seiter & Miller Advertising, New York, break during the "AXA East-West Showdown" college football game on ESPN2.

Although that will be many consumers' first exposure to the name, AXA Group -- Equitable's majority shareholder -- is a well-known insurance company throughout Europe.

Equitable also is giving its agents new credentials. By the end of 2000, nearly every agent will be licensed to sell stocks and bonds as well as certified as a financial planner.

Equitable is a well-regarded name in the U.S. Some agents and many experts decry the move.

"Equitable is a household name," reads a note from one agent posted on a Web site about the company. "What about AXA? Is that a household name?"

"It would be like Merrill Lynch changing its name," said Randall S. Guttery, director of the certified financial planner program at the University of North Texas.


Colin Devine, an insurance industry analyst with Salomon Smith Barney, admitted he had doubts about the change but came around to Mr. Miller's point of view.

"The life insurance industry has managed to tarnish its image in consumers' minds on more than one occasion," Mr. Devine said. "When you do surveys of whom people trust, insurance agents do not rank near the top of the list."

The make-over comes at a time of strength for Equitable. In 1998, Mr. Miller's first full year as CEO, Equitable earned $833 million, up 48%. Through June, the company netted $602 million, up 17%. Those results are better than those of other insurance companies currently becoming financial conglomerates.

Mr. Miller envisions Equitable competing directly with diversified financial marketers, such as Citigroup, rather than with traditional insurers, such as Cigna or Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. Barriers between brokerage, banking and insurance are coming down regardless of whether Congress ever reforms the laws regulating the industries.

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