Wells Fargo Rides Again

Want to hop on a stage coach and travel back in time? Wells Fargo is waving its magic wand, playing make believe to transport us back to a better place while conveniently overlooking the illegal, top-down policies designed to boost earnings and screw their customers. But rest assured. They’ve rediscovered the wholesome values upon which they were founded in 1852! Just as they did then, they’re bringing a semblance of trust, safety and order to the wild, wild, west.

Their comeback advertising campaign begs the questions of forgiveness and redemption. Are we deserving? Can we ever be deserving? What must be done to regain trust?

In a post-truth age, only ten years since the big banks contributed to the Great Recession, where memories of Wells Fargo’s well-publicized crimes and transgressions are still fresh in our minds, it would seem that a TV ad that simply says, in effect, “never mind, we’ve changed,” isn’t enough.

In a nutshell, that’s what the Wells Fargo comeback ad is telling us. The insincerity and clichés are jaw dropping. The effort is as bad as Spectrum’s “New Day” ad, in which they posed as an entirely new and improved company when all they had done was to change their name from Time Warner Cable. This is far worse. While Time Warner service was simply bad, Wells Fargo’s behavior was downright criminal.

Thinking about what is most offensive about the execution of this vacuous ad, there’s no clear winner. It’s a toss-up between images, music and copy, a shameless mash-up worthy of an ad agency named “Cliches ‘R’ Us.”

Cue the Black Keys with the low-key but bubbly and quintessentially acoustic strains of “Howlin’ for You.” Yeah…this song says something good is about to happen! Are we hip to the new tunes or what? Actually, maybe this song, so cool 8 years ago, will take our customers back in time to those golden days before our crimes were uncovered and Congress had called our CEO in on the carpet to ream him out. It was so much better then, before we were singled out.

We could tolerate a base level of shame easily. Taking the blame for the Great Recession along with the rest of the big banks and Wall Street was fine. Giving mortgages away and selling them off in bundles didn’t target any single person specifically, and hell, everyone was doing it! Directing our branches to open new, fee-based accounts without our customers’ permission? That was just us. But hey – we’ve got Black Keys music and stage coaches and happy people in our new ad. All is forgiven, right?

“We know the value of trust. We were built on it…We always found a way.”

Icons of the old west, a lone rider galloping pony-express-like across the rugged landscape, a stagecoach led by a six-horse team, the “iron horse” and the steamship connecting east and west, a cowboy/prospector nodding in satisfaction that his money has been counted correctly and securely deposited by a Wells Fargo teller.

Feel good yet? Wait! We’re just getting going with Wells Fargo nostalgia! Footage of a Wells Fargo Bank and Union Trust Company building on what appears to be a 1940’s San Francisco street corner. A 1930’s or ‘40’s kid in a flat cap making a deposit. A smiling 1970’s woman at an early Wells Fargo ATM. A ‘60’s blonde woman with a bad hairdo of the day counting out cash at a teller’s window.

Cut to the present with a young couple doing something on their mobile phone’s Wells Fargo app with a supportive employee guiding them through the process. (How did that get into the nostalgia section?)

“And then.” (The screen goes dark.) “We lost it.”

Cue the Black Keys and hit it! The full-fledged electric version of “Howlin’ for You” kicks in. “Alright!” We’re rocking now! Turn those lights back on!

Everything is right again. Even better! Images of smiley, happy people! Productive, hard driving people at work! A woman who couldn’t be more delighted, almost as if her kid just got into Harvard on a full scholarship, smiling at her iPad, which reads, “Wells Fargo has eliminated product sales goals!” People of color are approved for a loan! (No redlining here!) Shopping with the Wells Fargo payment app. A dad getting his three young kids ready for school. (We’re feminists!) Another dad bringing his happy, playful, skipping three-year old into a Wells Fargo branch where she’s warmly welcomed by a beaming employee who gives her a hand-slap.

Are you buying this?

The bank with the worst reputation in an untrusted category tells us they’ve changed. Why would we believe them? Would we believe the cheating spouse, now caught for the third or fourth time, who assures us it won’t happen again? Or the addict who refuses to quit while his life continues to descend into the abyss while all the time insisting that it’s all “under control” and he doesn’t need help?

I like to say that the facts never matter in marketing. But sometimes they do. If you’ve done wrong (chronically) but now claim to be reformed, people are going to want some proof of your atonement. Are you going to your AA meetings? Seeing a therapist? Have you given all your passwords to your wife and enabled her to locate you on her phone 24/7 so she knows where you are?

What is Wells Fargo doing? We know (if we read the papers, but not from this ad) that the CEO stepped down, but have all the bad actors been removed from management? Have respected, outside people been brought to right the ship, either on the board or in senior management?  Other than “no sales goals,” the sole, tangible claim of change in this ad, have other bad practices been eliminated? Is the company acting more transparently? Has the corporate culture changed? How will the customer experience improve? Why should they be trusted?

Data suggests that people tolerate the big banks only because of their convenience. When there’s a Chase, Wells Fargo or Bank of America branch and/or ATM on every corner, it’s hard for regional banks and credit unions to make the case that you should move your accounts. Not to mention the hassle of going through the process itself and the enormous task of updating every utility, credit card account and everything else on automatic billing. Who has time for that?

I’m one of those people. I hate the big banks, but there’s just too much inertia to switch. I like that there’s a branch on my corner and an ATM everywhere I turn.

However, I do notice that when I send an online payment, that my bank takes the money out my account that very instant. The payment may never clear, but that money is gone. Somehow credits take much longer to process. Or how about depositing paper checks? Out of state? Sorry, that will take ten business days to process. Ridiculous. They’re playing the float and playing all of us. Still, I feel trapped in my comfort zone, unwilling or just too lazy to do the “right thing.”

I do believe in second chances for people and companies, including the criminal. But those second chances must be earned. You’ve got to own up to your behavior. Show us that you understand your actions but admitting to what you did in detail. Apologize and take responsibility for your actions.

“And then we lost it,” doesn’t cut it. Not much of an apology. Wells Fargo didn’t “lose” anything. It’s not like Steph Curry was on a roll, nailing all his 3-pointers, and then lost his touch. It’s not like Clayton Kershaw can’t find his curve. No, Wells Fargo didn’t lose their mojo. They stole from their customers.

In that case, you’ve got a lot of work to do to prove yourself worthy of redemption. Perhaps if Wells Fargo had already outlined a series of proactive, tangible steps they’re taking to make things right, we could regard this ad differently. For example, Starbucks just closed all their U.S. stores for a day for racial bias training – a worthy action in and of itself – but to prove beyond doubt that this was more than a P.R gimmick, the coffee chain made sure to tell us that this was not simply a one-off gesture to deflect criticism, but the beginning of a sustained, on-going effort.

Wells Fargo employees can smile and high-five little kids when they walk into a branch (except they won’t) and still rip us off. A contrived, formulaic, feel-good ad that might have been created by students in an Advertising 101 course isn’t going to cut it.

Perhaps Wells Fargo selected the wrong band and the wrong track for this ad. The Who singing “We Won’t Be Burned Again” might be more apt.

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