Can Brand Guide Wells Fargo Out of Their Scandal?

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It’s been a few months since the initial shockwaves from the Wells Fargo scandal stole headlines and took over public discourse. In a true sign of the times (or perhaps the results of a presidential election that felt more like a reality TV show), the public (or at least the media) seems to have already lost interest.

With the congressional hearings behind them, Well Fargo has slowly crept out of the harsh spotlight. That might be good from a crisis management perspective, but what happens now? How does a company recover from something like this?

The actions they take now could very well dictate the trajectory of the next 3-5 years.

And if the recent arbitration announcement is any indicator, it doesn’t seem like the bank has quite learned its lesson yet. In a Facebook post last Monday, Senator Elizabeth Warren wrote “Wells Fargo made a big show of promising to treat their customers better, but now we can see just how meaningless that promise is.”

Actions speak louder than words. That is essentially Warren’s message. Wells Fargo may be speaking Main Street, but their actions are all Wall Street. And that is no way to win back the trust of customers or employees.

Follow the Money

What this comes down to is behavior. Behavior is what got Wells Fargo into this mess, and behavior is what will get them out.

It’s been well-documented that compensation is one of the strongest drivers of employee behavior. No one would argue that Wells Fargo needs to seriously restructure the way in which employees are incentivized. But they may have something else in their back pocket that could help them navigate these rough waters: their brand. Unlike their compensation strategy, the bank’s brand doesn’t have to change. In fact, it shouldn’t.

Brand to Behavior

It may seem like a distant memory now, but Wells Fargo had a very strong reputation coming out of the financial crisis. With its folksy yet enduring stagecoach logo, the San Francisco bank had positioned itself as a solid Main Street lender that avoided the excesses and missteps of Wall Street.

Encapsulated in the line, “Together we’ll go far,” Wells Fargo espoused a ‘culture of caring’ centered around a fundamental vision to “satisfy our customers’ financial needs and help them succeed financially.” Unlike other banks, they were warm and welcoming. They seemed to genuinely care about making a positive difference in their customers’ lives.

Our brand purpose is: “To help our customers succeed financially. We believe better is possible for everyone. This is why team members work together every day to help our customers reach their goals.”

Wells Fargo would be smart to use this brand as a guiding light, navigating them out this crisis.

Sure, it might be tempting to throw everything out in an effort to distance themselves from the scandal. But that would be a mistake.

Now more than ever, the bank should stay true to those values and beliefs that empowered them to be so successful in the past, and figure out how to infuse those values into behaviors that create the most consistent and impactful experience at every step of the customer journey. How should a warm and welcoming bank act? How can the brand drive product offering, service design and even compensation? The process of recovery begins by answering these questions.

An Inside-Out Approach

It’s worth noting that, whatever the answers, the bank’s brand must come to life through its employees. After all, employees are the face of the bank – their behavior shapes the majority of each and every customer experience. If those behaviors are not aligned with the bank’s fundamental brand strategy, customers will have no reason to believe anything has really changed since the scandal. Wells Fargo must gain back the trust of their employees and prove – through their actions – that they believe in the original values.

This might mean investing in dedicated brand training and behavior workshops for client-facing employees. It might require a company-wide internal branding campaign geared at reinforcing and reinvigorating enthusiasm for brand values and behaviors. Given the bank’s size, they will likely have to leverage a mix of in-person and digital platforms to reach every employee. Importantly, these efforts must be driven from the top-down. Only when employees see that the leadership team is fully invested in these efforts will they understand they are real and important.

At the end of the day, we are only human. And humans make mistakes. That doesn’t automatically have to be the demise of an entire organization. A refocused effort on brand (and a restructuring of incentives) might just be Wells Fargo’s path to public exoneration.

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