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Thursday, August 17, 2006 - Page updated at 08:10 AM

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Just call us WaMu now, Washington Mutual says

Seattle Times business reporter

Hardly anyone says they have an International Business Machines computer or they ship with Federal Express. Someday, maybe people won't say they bank with Washington Mutual.

That's because the bank will gradually change its everyday name to WaMu, a nickname it has had for more than a decade. Customers will start to see the new name on logos, branch signs and marketing materials in the next few months.

The company's legal name will remain Washington Mutual, spokeswoman Darcy Donahoe-Wilmot said. And the changes won't happen overnight — they could take months, even years.

New logos and signs will go up when branches are remodeled or new ones are opened, so the name change will cost the company little, Donahoe-Wilmot said. Checks will begin carrying the abbreviated name when the current supply runs out.

Washington Mutual, once a little-known regional thrift with modest aspirations, expanded rapidly after Kerry Killinger became CEO in 1990 and now has more than 2,000 branches across the country.

Its new name is unlikely to shock anyone because it isn't really new. It reflects the bank's brand better than the full name does.

"We've been using it for a long time," Donahoe-Wilmot said. "Our Web site is WaMu.com. We have WaMu free checking. And [company headquarters] is called WaMu Center."

Why does a company change its name?

Usually one of two reasons, said Ann Jensen Warman, a principal at Seattle-based BrandUnity: It is trying to reinvent itself or trying to escape a negative image.

But Donahoe-Wilmot said WaMu is simply easier to remember and has a friendlier, more approachable sound than Washington Mutual. And research showed that two-thirds of consumers were familiar with "WaMu," pronounced Wah-MOO.

The name change would be beneficial, Jensen Warman said, partly because the name is shorter. Making the name more informal takes a company closer to the people, she said.

"It's funny, but it's clever," Jensen Warman said. "And they're not completely rebranding. They're taking part of their identity with them as they go to a new space."

Changing a brand name is a two-part process, Jensen Warman said. First there are the visual changes, such as the changing of the logo or signs. Second is indoctrinating employees to disperse the name to customers.

That could go either way.

"WaMu? Why not?" said customer Joy Miesbauer of Seattle. "WaMu is kind of cute."

Customer Joan Thompson of Woodinville isn't so sure: "I like Washington Mutual. WaMu sounds like a cow."

"WaMu" may sound kind of goofy, but this is the bank that brought us the ads with the Rodeo Grandmas.

One thing is clear: WaMu is a lot easier to say than the company's original name: Washington National Building Loan and Investment Association.

Bibeka Shrestha: 206-464-2436 or bshrestha@seattletimes.com

Seattle Times business reporter Melissa Allison contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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