Can Fallen Giant UBS Restore Trust By Reviving Paine Webber?


While 2009 was rough for many brands, none lost more ground in Interbrand’s Best Global Brands study this year than UBS, down 50% in Brand Value, an index that factors in brand revenue, brand earnings, and a measure of brand strength. (To be fair, Citigroup’s decline of 49% is about as steep.)

So, should UBS drop its name and revive “Paine Webber”? Has “UBS” become the ValuJet of finance?

CNBC’s Charlie Gasparino and The Business Insider’s John Carney both expect the beleaguered Swiss bank to rebrand. Each has suggested that if former Merrill Lynch brokerage chief Robert McCann convinces a court to let him break his non-compete agreement with former employer Bank of America to head UBS’s brokerage unit, he will rename it Paine Webber, the retired name of the stock brokerage and asset management firm UBS aquired in 2000. Initially, the merged conglomerate was called “UBS PaineWebber”; in 2003 “Paine Webber” was dropped in place of “UBS Wealth Management USA.” [more]

But why change the name? And why change it after six years of branding UBS as a conversation between “You and Us?” According to Gasparino, “it hasn’t worked. And the Paine Webber brand name is better.” Reviving the 123-year-old Paine Webber could help resuscitate consumer trust in the bailed-out bank, recently unloaded by its Swiss co-owners.

While UBS has been less vilified than Citigroup, its reputation took another hit when the U.S. government accused the firm of helping American clients evade taxes through unmarked Swiss accounts, and forced the bank to reveal its historically anonymous account-holders. The negative press has damaged their relationship with wealth management clients who have either left or are threatening to do so.

The Best Global Brands report observes that UBS has not invested in supporting its brand, and that “trust and attachment is consequently lower than ever.” It counts UBS and Citi among “The Fallen,” concluding, “Even if UBS manages to regain stability, it will have a difficult time rebuilding trust in the brand.”

Will a name change produce magical brand healing, or will consumers see through the switch? Maybe other struggling financial giants will decide follow suit and revive their reassuring, old-school brands that evoke better times. Perhaps Citi should bring back E.F. Hutton: when he talks, people listen. Or will customers of the less battered Morgan Stanley (down “only” 26% in the study — actually, not bad for the financial sector this year) once again look like they just heard from Dean Witter? Carney tells brandchannel one historic name is “probably permanently dead”: Lehman Brothers, “the ultimate brand demise.”