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Wells Fargo launches ad campaign to leave accounts scandal behind. Not everyone is buying it

Wells Fargo launches ad campaign to leave accounts scandal behind. Not everyone is buying it
Wells Fargo has launched an ad campaign to win back the trust of customers following disclosures about consumer abuses. This a snapshot of a campaign web page. (Wells Fargo)

Deb Gabor was watching television recently when a Wells Fargo & Co. commercial caught her attention.

The ad was part of a new campaign, called Re-Established, that the banking giant began rolling out this week to help it move past its massive fake-accounts scandal and reassure customers.

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The commercial opens with the bank's origins in the Old West, references the scandal and fast-forwards to depict dedicated bank employees and happy customers as a narrator assures viewers: "It's a new day at Wells Fargo."

The spot made Gabor perk up because she's chief executive of Sol Marketing in Austin, Texas, whose services include corporate-crisis help, and because she's also a Wells Fargo customer. But the commercial left her wanting.

"This ad campaign leaves me scratching my head and wondering if Wells Fargo is strong enough as a brand that it can withstand this kind of crisis," said Gabor, who felt the ad came across as "really insincere and inauthentic to me, like they were trying too hard."

The scandal surrounding the San Francisco bank stemmed from its aggressive "cross-selling efforts," in which employees created millions of new accounts in customers' names without their consent, such as new credit-card accounts, to meet sales goals.

The tactics were first uncovered by the Los Angeles Times in 2013, and the scandal mushroomed in September 2016 when the bank agreed to pay $185 million to settle investigations of the cross-selling practices by federal regulators and Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer.

Amid the scandal, John Stumpf abruptly resigned as Wells Fargo's chief executive. He was replaced by longtime Wells Fargo executive Timothy Sloan, who's trying to thoroughly restructure the bank to avoid repeating its past mistakes.

The new ad campaign "marks a turning point by expressing how we are fundamentally a different company today," Sloan said in a statement. "While we have made solid progress, we recognize there is still work to be done."

The campaign's advertising is being run nationwide on TV, in print publications, on digital platforms and mobile channels — a campaign analysts said will probably cost millions of dollars.

Its first one-minute commercial, called "Trust," recalls Wells Fargo's origins in the 19th century as a trusted carrier of gold and other goods by stagecoach, noting that "we always found the way — until we lost it," a reference to the scandal.

The commercial's narrator goes on to say Wells Fargo is making "a complete recommitment to you, fixing what went wrong, making things right, and ending product-sales goals for branch bankers so we can focus on your satisfaction."

"We're holding ourselves accountable to find and fix issues proactively, because earning back your trust is our greatest priority," the narrator says.

Sloan and other Wells Fargo executives are expected to elaborate on the bank's overhaul Thursday when they meet with institutional investors and analysts. A webcast of the conference will be available to the public.

But the campaign faces head winds, including that customers continue to read and hear about Wells Fargo's scandal.

For instance, the bank agreed Friday to pay $480 million to settle a class-action lawsuit filed by shareholders who accused Wells Fargo of securities fraud related to the scandal. Wells Fargo denied the allegations but said it settled to avoid the cost and disruption of further litigation.

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And last month, federal regulators hit Wells Fargo with a $1-billion penalty for other abuses that harmed mortgage and auto-loan borrowers, one of the largest fines levied against a U.S. bank that was not related to the financial crisis.

The Federal Reserve even took the rare step in February of ordering the bank to cap its growth in assets at $1.95 trillion while it works to improve its corporate governance for what the Fed called "widespread consumer abuses and other compliance breakdowns."

Stephen Beck, founder of cg42, a management consulting firm that's researched the Wells Fargo scandal, said he doubts the campaign will be effective, noting the bank already had run ad campaigns aimed at repairing its image with customers before the latest enforcement actions.

"It's always easy to run an ad campaign," Beck said. "It's hard to change a culture, and consumers are smart enough to know that advertising is not to be trusted."

In the prior campaigns, Wells Fargo "trotted out the stagecoach just like they're trotting out the stagecoach here," Beck said. Now, the bank's posture is "let's say this time that we've learned and we're reestablishing," he said.

"The bottom line is that, when the fake-accounts scandal was going on, if you downloaded their mission, vision and values, they're not dramatically different than they are today," Beck said. "They were false and hollow then, and what's to make the consumer believe that these aren't false and hollow now?"

Gabor said she also thought Wells Fargo would have been better served by having Sloan in the commercial, noting other cases in which executives have made ads more effective. One example: Auto executive Lee Iacocca appeared in TV commercials in the 1980s that helped Chrysler rebound from near extinction.

"I was looking for someone from Wells Fargo, like a human being, to say, 'We accept responsibility, this is our plan, I personally own this plan and I'm going to hold myself responsible,' " Gabor said. "I might have liked to have seen Tim Sloan himself be part of the apology."

But others lauded Wells Fargo's campaign.

"I thought it was an artful, smart ad in that it acknowledges the scandal but very clearly talks about how they are doing things differently, of how the foundation of the company is and will be strong," said Michael Gordon, chief executive of Group Gordon, a corporate and crisis-communications firm.

Still, Gordon agreed that "an apology is only as good as the actions that follow. What's more important to the consumer is the action. They don't want to see the same mistakes repeated again."

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Twitter: @PeltzLATimes

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