Wells Fargo provides an object lesson in how not to rebrand a Black Hat bank

When a bank has earned justifiable customer suspicion it's possible to scratch back trust; but that's also earned

Published February 16, 2019 10:00AM (EST)

 (Getty/Justin Sullivan)
(Getty/Justin Sullivan)

In a puzzling bit of timing, two of the world’s biggest banks rolled out refreshed branding within weeks of one another. In 2013 Motley Fool ran the headline “Inside America’s Most-Hated Bank”, on an article detailing Bank of America’s flawed business model and ailing corporate culture. Bank of America embarked on a multi-year strategy to enhance its customer experience and get back in customers’ good graces by simplifying its product lines and enhancing their overall customer experience.

That culminated with the unveiling of a new brand, featuring an update to its more than 20-year-old logo, refreshed graphics and brand positioning placing customers and their hopes, dreams and desires at the center of the brand — a trend uncharacteristic the retail banking industry. With new a new branding campaign that poses the rhetorical question to customers, “What would you like the power to do?”

BofA is using its brand to broadcast to customers that they at the very core of why Bank of America exists. The bank’s customer-first focus seems to be paying off. Over the past few years, JD Power consistently ranked Bank of America highly in many categories in its retail banking satisfaction studies. In recent interviews, Bank of America leaders explained that they pursued a visual and positioning refresh to their brand in response to increasing strength and growing customer affinity for the brand, not as a knee-jerk reaction to the bad vibes that many customers feel about the entire industry.

Wells Fargo is also attempting to repair damage to customer relationships that occurred at their own hand. A new brand campaign, entitled “This is Wells Fargo,” launched at the end of January on the heels of 2018’s “Re-established” campaign, which was the bank’s initial attempt at recovering their reputation after a series of high-profile scandals.

Since 2016, Wells Fargo’s reputation has resembled a smoldering dumpster fire in reaction to the bank’s admission that employees opened unauthorized accounts for thousands of customers without their consent. That’s on top of significant data breaches that revealed personal identity information for millions of customers and revelations that they engaged in sketchy practices in their auto repossession process.

Wells Fargo just can’t seem to get a break. Last week, the bank experienced a massive multi-day, system-wide outage that kept customers from accessing their accounts online or via the bank’s mobile app (in the spirit of full disclosure, I need to let readers know that I’m one of those fake account customers, and I was — in a word — pissed when I had to go out on an unseasonably cold, wet Austin, Texas day last week to a Wells Fargo branch location to make a transfer between my business and personal accounts).

As I opined in the LA Times last year when the bank unveiled its “Re-established” campaign, the dusty old stagecoach isn’t going to trick anyone into believing that Wells Fargo has customers at the center of their brand or their corporate culture.

Wells Fargo’s new branding features a slight update to the logo and a new graphic design treatment for the eponymous wagon. The bank is also rolling out a new advertising campaign featuring banking customer vignettes and a call to action to get a free financial health checkup from the bank. While the efforts seem promising, will it be enough to win back jaded customers who have had it up-to-here with the bank’s antics? Probably not.

Today’s consumers aren’t as “think as you dumb they are,” and they have many alternatives to choose from, including Bank of America, a brand that’s make a strong play to win over their hearts, minds and wallets. A brand can’t attempt to distract consumers from the fact that they have a sick business and a sick culture with the shiny object of a rebranding.

The reality is that Wells Fargo screwed up. And then they screwed up again. And again. And again. With a trail of scandal that goes back several years, it’s going to take more than a modernization of some fonts and an upbeat ad campaign. In a press release announcing its new brand identity, Wells Fargo CEO Tim Sloan said this, “Our company’s transformation continues…our goal of delivering exceptional service to customers and helping them succeed financially remains central to everything we do.

As customer expectations continue to evolve, this campaign highlights that Wells Fargo is transforming to provide easier, more personal and helpful solutions.” So, does that mean everything is all good now? Definitely not. It wasn’t “all better” when the bank used images of its stagecoach and its 100-plus year history to reinforce its commitment to customers instead of accepting responsibility for their shady business practices and authentically apologizing for how it violated its customers’ trust.

However, Wells Fargo has published a timeline of its scandals and the plan it has outlined for their internal process for righting the wrongs. But how many consumers have actually seen that? I’m a fairly well-informed customer and I only uncovered it while doing research for this story. Nonetheless, it seems like a good start towards making the much-needed repairs to its customer relationships. Some customers might think it to be too little too late to regain their favor. If Wells Fargo really wants to repair its relationships with customers it needs to do a couple things, and do them fast.

  1. A little “sorry” goes a long way. When a brand screws up, regardless of who’s responsible for the error, the leaders of the organization should apologize. Period. While we’ve seen CEO Tim Sloan on the news and read his quotes in the company’s press releases, customers might like a little contrition. It has been proven that apologies are powerful in repairing damage to interpersonal relationships. That’s also true of the relationships that customers have with brands. Wells Fargo recently ran a print ad that, according to its website, "provides greater insight into the very real changes Wells Fargo has made and continues to make as a company." The ad reads more like a CV than a heartfelt appeal for customers’ forgiveness and a pledge to give the bank another chance.
  2. Wells Fargo, we want to see your insides. Just like we love some people in our lives, there are some brands we just love unconditionally. The best brands in the world create those unconditional bonds, or what we call in my world, Irrational Loyalty. Irrational Loyalty occurs when customers are so strongly bonded to a brand that they’d feel they were cheating on it were they to choose an alternative. Every brand has the ability to create those bonds by aligning their values and beliefs with their customers’. When brands reveal what’s inside their gooey core brand DNA — the very foundation upon which their brands are built, their authentic core values and what they stand for — they attract in droves the kinds of customers they want. While Wells Fargo’s first attempt at rebuilding trust showed us that the company is resting on the laurels of a century-old legacy and a rickety stagecoach, it has the opportunity to use ongoing marketing and advertising and reimagined customer service practices to show us what’s really inside.
  3. Bring humanity back into the brand. Make your brand — and your efforts — about customers, not about you. Wells Fargo might accelerate the process of winning back customer confidence if customers can see people who are just like them actually experiencing and benefitting from Wells Fargo’s changes. In addition to sharing the checkmarks you’ve made on your brand recovery to-do list, show us the stories of real people with whom you’ve made amends, and what they’ve been able to achieve in their lives supported by their relationship with you.

As I said before, the best brands in the world create conditions of Irrational Loyalty. Those brands stand on a strong foundation of alignment among the organization’s core purpose, values and beliefs and those of the customers most highly predictive of their success. Bank of America’s brand refresh may win them more positive vibes from customers than Wells Fargo’s because they seem to be reinventing from the inside-out, rather than the other way around.

By Deb Gabor

Deb Gabor is a regular contributor to Forbes, USA Today and Fortune and the author of "Irrational Loyalty. Building a Brand That Thrives In Turbulent Times," among others. Reach her on twitter at https://twitter.com/deb_sol