In 2018, roughly two years after having its brand dragged through the mud following a series of scandals, Wells Fargo rolled out its first attempt at rebuilding its tarnished image. The campaign, which used the tag line “Established 1852. Re-established 2018.” followed on the heels of an apology campaign — “Building a Better Bank” — that Wells Fargo debuted in 2017.
Trouble was, the fines and penalties just kept piling up, now totaling hundreds of millions of dollars. Such developments have undermined and slowed attempts at resuscitating the beleaguered brand.
Now, just weeks after another settlement — this one a staggering $575 million — Wells Fargo has rolled out yet another campaign, complete with a new logo. The beginning of the yearlong multi-media campaign stresses “real change” under the tagline “This is Wells Fargo.”
The new logo only slightly tweaks the typeface and removes the gold hue from the lettering. It also accompanies a very contemporary and attractive update to the venerable stagecoach icon.
All in all, not a huge shift from a graphic design perspective, but the move is nevertheless significant. There are few brands in American business lore that are as enduring and famous as Wells Fargo, right alongside Coca-Cola, Levis, and John Deere. When a brand like this decides to change its logo — which they rarely do — it’s a big deal.
So will America buy it? Or reject the new logo with skepticism and derision? After all, the $2 trillion megabank has been plagued by new accusations and bad press ever since news of the fake-account fraud broke back in 2016, thwarting efforts to move forward.
This recent rebranding effort from Wells Fargo has been greeted with tentative approval by experts in the branding industry, but has been met with a few snarky jibes as well. For instance, one industry headline reads: “Wells Fargo Reveals New Logo And Everything Is Fixed Now.”
A spread ad published in The Wall Street Journal reflects on a “massive effort to transform Wells Fargo” over the last two years, under the leadership of Timothy Sloan, President and CEO: “A central part of our transformation was a deep examination of our entire business, which uncovered additional areas where we had fallen down. While headlines about these issues are recent, the issues in question occurred in the past. They don’t reflect the bank we are striving to become.”
The ad speaks of Wells’ efforts to bring fresh leadership at the board level — such as the appointment of former Federal Reserve Board Gov. Betsy Duke to the Wells board chairmanship — and to recruit senior talent from outside sources.
A two-page ad in the Wall Street Journal (click to enlarge).
Wells receives more than the average share of brickbats in social media. Much of it the bank doesn’t respond to, according to Jamie Moldafsky, Chief Marketing Officer, in an interview with The Financial Brand.
“We have a lot of really positive things happening and good stories to tell,” says Moldafsky, “but obviously there are going to be a lot of people who weigh in with their own perspectives. As a brand in transformation, it’s nothing that we don’t expect, and we just continue to believe that if we focus on doing the right things, that it’ll take care of itself.”
“We’re not engaged in a day-to-day social media battle,” adds Moldafsky. “We’re engaged in a very, very long-term relationship with our customers and our stakeholders.”
The day after the campaign was announced, CNBC’s Jim Cramer interviewed Wells’ Sloan, who spoke of newly centralized management and change in compensation programs. During the interview Cramer asked Sloan about the impact of the cross-sell investigation.
“You know, we haven’t lost a lot of business,” Sloan answered. “But there’s no question that given the changes that we’re making at the company and given some of the reputation issues that we’ve been dealing with, the rate of growth has slowed.” He noted that growth in primary checking accounts slowed to 0% at the end of 2016. By the end of 2018, it had edged up to 1.7%. “So, we’re going in the right direction, but still not back to where we were before,” said Sloan.
Focusing on People — Internally and Externally
For the first time in the 167-year-old company’s history, marketing will feature Wells Fargo employees helping consumers with their financial needs. In the campaign’s first spot, that overspending young couple benefits by working with a Wells Financial Health Banker, part of a broader financial wellness initiative.
The campaign will be featuring specific programs that serve consumers. One example is the Wells Control Tower, designed to give account holders greater control over their relationships. Another is Overdraft Rewind, through which Wells claims it has “proactively reversed millions of dollars of fees.”
Moldafsky, CMO since 2011, says the new campaign was extensively researched.
“One of the things we heard really clearly from our customers and stakeholders was that ‘We want to know what you’re going to do for us‘,” Moldafsky explains. Hence getting down to specifics and beyond generalities. “We’re certainly evolving our culture, transforming many, many of our practices.”
What will tell Moldafsky if the campaign is working? Ultimately, she says, acquisition of new customers and retention of existing ones. “This campaign obviously is intended to have legs,” she explains.
“We know that trust isn’t going to come from the campaign,” says Moldafsky. “That’s going to come from their experiences with us and their belief in the underlying strength of our organization. So, over time, will we be seeing our trust numbers restored and the marketplace viewing us more favorably? Will the brand be more respected, and looked to as a solution for the future? We will track and measure all those things.”
The rebranding will first be seen digitally, according to Moldafsky, who declined to provide any numbers regarding the ultimate cost of re-signing Wells’ extensive office network, ATMs, and myriad other places the old logo appears. The intent is to roll the new look out over the course of 2019, in high visibility applications first, while the campaign unfolds through the year.
Branding Experts Weigh In
The Financial Brand reached out to marketing, communications, and branding experts across the country for their assessment of the new logo.
Gina Bleedorn, Chief Experience Officer at the Adrenaline Agency, believes the campaign strikes the right tone and makes a good first step.
“They are acknowledging internal issues and highlighting the ways the bank is beginning to address them, starting with their people,” Bleedorn says. “Without explicitly enumerating their mistakes and missteps, this campaign demonstrates that Wells Fargo knows how essential trust and credibility are to any financial institution — and that their top priority is to rebuild that trust with their customers.”
That’s only the beginning of the beginning, however. “They’re smart enough to know that saying ‘trust us’ and ‘we’ve addressed it’ won’t ameliorate public concern over their bottom-line credibility issues,” Bleedorn adds. ”
Ann Handley, Chief Content Officer at MarketingProfs, says the company’s intention to use employees to tell the brand’s story for the first time ever seems smart.
“If the goal is to show real people interacting with real customers to rebuild trust, then I applaud it,” says Handley. That said, Handley feels the intention will have to be measured against execution — little has been seen beyond that a single spot so far, in which the Wells employee mostly speaks and smiles on a headset to people needing financial counseling. Handley found the spot polished but inauthentic — the couple shown spending away their income on trendy restaurants “felt like hired actors scripted into an ad.”
Handley thinks social media can help with the “real people” outreach. “Give us regular Facebook Live or Instagram stories,” suggests Handley. “Show us your execs and your branch employees interacting with customers. Have the CEO interacting regularly on social media.”
Joe Sullivan, CEO at Market Insights, thinks the new campaign is a good next step, but not addressing the real issue: “rebuilding consumer trust.”
“Trust is earned through a series of small incremental steps where consistent action is taken against promises made,” says Sullivan. “Wells Fargo will need to prove the intentions it is communicating.”
Corporate communications expert Merrie Spaeth, President and Founder of Spaeth Communications, thinks Wells has a history of undermining its efforts in brand building.
For example, she notes that at the time of the “Re-establish,” campaign, she was paying off a Wells Fargo mortgage over the phone. This was a perfect opportunity for an employee, at that moment representing the face of the bank brand, to tell Spaeth, an existing customer, something like “Thank you so much for giving us another chance” or “Our new ads make a commitment that you can trust us, and I want to personally assure you that I believe in this.” It didn’t happen.
Putting employees in advertising is great, Spaeth says, “but the real test is whether the employees want to talk about the bank and their job one-on-one.” Sit next to a Mary Kay rep, she says in contrast, and they will tell you everything about that brand.
Branding expert Armin Vit, who frequently publishes reviews of refreshed corporate logos and brand identities, offers qualified praise.
“In trying to crawl back from its hole, Wells Fargo is taking baby steps to shed some of its past without completely reinventing itself,” Vit wrote in a review on his website, Under Consideration. “The new ad is not bad, but I don’t know how much it really helps build their reputation back up. But damn, that’s a fine looking new stagecoach illustration.”
Various iterations of the Wells Fargo stagecoach icon, with the new version shown first.
The New Campaign Is Not Without Risks
“An ad campaign like this will only be successful if it actually represents a larger shift within the organization,” says Adrenaline’s Bleedorn. She says the process and people issues that surfaced at Wells “point to a slow and steady decline in both operations and culture.”
“This campaign shows that Wells Fargo has a clear-eyed view of their organization’s actions,” says Bleedorn, “and seems committed to change.”
But that means failure is another black eye.
Spaeth says the bank has to work harder to prevent stumbles that undermine its messaging. Predating the new campaign’s debut by only a bit was the challenge of the furloughed federal employees with outstanding loans and related financial needs. Spaeth says Wells failed to do all it could — in fact, New York Times personal finance blogger Ron Lieber gave the bank an extensive roasting over this issue in early January.
“Wells is attempting to rebuild trust,” says Joe Sullivan, and this will require consistency of message balanced with action—any deviation from this could erode any good will generated. They have to focus feverishly on culture.”
Sullivan adds something rarely spoken of. During this period of scandals, “caused by a small percentage of bank staff, there have been thousands of dedicated bankers at Wells Fargo providing excellent service and keeping customers from leaving the bank. This cannot be overemphasized.”
Will It Ultimately Work?
“There really hasn’t been a situation in banking quite like the Wells Fargo situation,” says Sullivan. “What Wells is trying to do is reassure current customers about their decision to stay with the bank and demonstrate that the bank is correcting the problems and evolving.”
Bleedorn has two views on Wells’ sense of timing since fall 2016. One is that the bank went too dark when making its initial changes in the wake of the first sales scandals. “Wells Fargo took a relative hiatus from public communications while they righted the ship,” she explains, “and this pause in communications can result in consumers thinking that you are hiding from criticism.”
On the other hand, she applauds the bank not rebranding too soon.
“The challenge with rebranding in a situation like this is that you could be perceived as trying to too quickly move past a scandal and not acknowledge the past,” says Bleedorn. “The thing that Wells Fargo did right in this scenario is that they didn’t completely change their brand logo and color palette. They updated their visual brand identity — owning their past and showing an updated approach — which is aligned with the public-facing communications about their changes.”
“We’ll have to see if it pays off.”