WHAT'S IN A NAME? SOMETIMES NOTHING, SOMETIMES IDIOCY

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What would you think if Frito-Lay, when it bought Cracker Jack, changed the venerable old brand name to Fritos Caramel?

That, in essence, is what banks do when they buy other banks. They immediately wipe out all the trust and familiarity the acquired bank has built up over the years.

Take the case of NationsBank Corp. in Charlotte buying Barnett Bank. Barnett is an institution in Florida with 616 branches throughout the state. But as soon as the deal is finalized, NationsBank is taking down all the Barnett signs (including, I would suppose, the sign on the Barnett building in downtown Orlando) and replacing them with the red and blue NationsBank logo.

When a package-goods company buys a famous brand name, much of the cost of the purchase is attributed to the value of the brand name. But when a bank buys another bank, the brand name of the acquired bank is zero. What a waste.

That opens all kinds of opportunities for foes. A couple of Sundays ago, Suntrust Banks, Barnett's chief Florida rival, ran a hard-hitting ad. The ad showed a guy on a train trestle with a streamliner bearing down on him. The ad was headlined, "Maybe now is a good time to move."

Get a load of the copy: "If you bank at Barnett Bank, you know that NationsBank is planning to take over your bank. And your account right along with it. But when takeovers happen, big problems usually follow. Branches may close. Employees may leave. Products may change. And fees may go up. What does it mean for you? Should you wait and see what happens? Or move your banking relationship now?"

Suntrust's advice: Call 1-800-2-SWITCH. "If you liked banking at Barnett, you're going to feel right at home with Suntrust."

Because NationsBank already does business in Florida, there's considerable uncertainty among Barnett employees about who will be asked to stay on under the arrangement.

George Koehn, president of Suntrust of Central Florida, told me the train ad was tame compared with some ads the bank considered. So I guess all's fair in love and banking.

The other side of the coin in bank mergers is that the big banks want to chase customers from one state to another as they move and resettle, so they want their customers to be familiar with one name.

For instance, NationsBank's crosstown rival, First Union, wants to capture the flow of retirees and other migrants from North to South. "If you're there in New York for them, and then in Florida, they don't have to change banks," First Union's chairman told The New York Times.

You can bet Core States Financial, which agreed to be purchased by First Union in a $16 billion deal, will be the latest bank to lose its name.

I've had a lot of fun ridiculing the more ludicrous corporate name changes over the years, names like Hartmarx and Nynex (thankfully put out of its misery by Bell Atlantic). That was when computer-generated corporate names were the rage.

But not since United Airlines changed its name for a brief period to Allegis have I encountered such a colossally inept name as Diageo PLC, the new name for the combination of Guinness and Grand Metropolitan. The made-up name, based on the Latin word for "day" and the Greek word for "world," replaces what the two conglomerates were going to call the merged entity, GMG Brands.

Diageo sounds to me like the first tenor of an Italian opera. Our own Joe Cappo likens it to the Italian cheese Asiago -- or maybe Adagio -- as in a musical composition.

My friend Mark Vittert thinks the name is totally idiotic. He says they have one of the great brand names of all times in Guinness. So at the very least they could call the new company, Grand Guinness.

As for the name they almost used, GMG Brands, the companies probably turned it down because it sounded too much like the car company of almost the same name.

But the new name still has an auto connotation, at least to Americans, Geo being a form of Chevrolet. Come to think of it, what Diageo really sounds like is a souped-up Geo with an Italian sportscar flair.

Gloria Scoby, our group publisher, has the best advice.

"Why don't they bite the bullet and call the new company DiMaggio and buy into

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