In Brands We Trust?

September 29, 2016

One of the industry sectors tracked in the Tenet CoreBrand Index is called ‘Financial’, which encompasses a range of financial services brands, including retail banks in the U.S. In recent years, one of the better performing brands among these retail banks has been Wells Fargo. Looking at Wells Fargo BrandPower relative to 12 peer institutions (large national network banks), it ranks among the top 3 in every quarter from Q1 2013 to the most recent measurement, Q2 2016. Plus, it has realized the largest improvement (24%) in BrandPower among any of those top three institutions over that same period.

Now, Wells Fargo’s performance in the CoreBrand Index comes as no surprise to me because before joining Tenet Partners, I spent several years as Director of Strategic Research at an industry leadership organization for financial services. And in virtually every study I commissioned to assess the performance and quality of large national network banks in the United States, the Wells Fargo brand mirrored what we’ve seen in the CoreBrand BrandPower Index in terms of the brand’s performance being one the best on customer sentiment, loyalty, deposit retention and most notably, in the quality of their lending.

Now, as most recall, in the 2008-2009 economic downturn, sub-prime mortgages and questionable loans were at the center of the housing bubble collapse that drove us to the great recession from which we have only recently started to emerge. However, Wells Fargo stood apart as being one of the few financial services brands NOT tarred by accusations of the questionable lending practices that ultimately doomed some financial services brands, like Wachovia and Countrywide Financial. In fact, in the wake of the much maligned Toxic Asset Relief Program (TARP) that bailed out many banks at risk from the collapse of the financial markets, it was the Wells Fargo brand that most thought would emerge from TARP in the best shape.

But oh, how the mighty have fallen!

This past week it was revealed that a large number of Wells Fargo employees secretly created millions of unauthorized bank and credit card accounts -- without their customers knowing it -- since 2011. The resulting furor over the revelation, and the clumsy handling of it by Wells Fargo (which fired 5,300 low to mid level employees responsible while allowing the executive in charge of the troubled unit to retire with a significant financial package) has now cast the bank as the poster child for the same behavior and deceptive practices that were at the center of the 2008-2009 financial crisis.

What is also troubling for Wells Fargo, and really the entire financial services industry, is that the behavior resulting in the Wells Fargo controversy had been going on for sometime with apparently the knowledge of Wells Fargo leadership. Still, little was done to raise an alarm, and those employees that tried to do so were either dismissed or fired for their efforts.

Of course, this is not the only case of a well known, if not iconic brand being tarnished by a crisis largely of their own making; we need only think about Volkswagen and the diesel emissions scandal, and the recent Samsung debacle where their Galaxy smartphones have spontaneously combusted, for reminders.

But the issue with Wells Fargo is different given the recent history of the financial services sector of which they are a part, and the basic tenets of trust and transparency that are needed for stakeholders to engage with these brands. The trust and transparency between the banks and their customers was severely tested in 2008-2009 and in the subsequent recession that roiled people’s lives. And now, just as many felt the lost trust was slowly returning, the Wells Fargo scandal has dashed any of those gains and called the entire industry’s trustworthiness into question.

At the time of this blog’s posting, recent developments reported in the most recent issue of Time indicate that the “Justice Department has reportedly issued subpoenas and begun a criminal probe.” And that “U.S. federal prosecutors are vying for the right to go after the bank, and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency is weighing penalties for managers.” There have also been limited discussions of “the unlikely prospect that special powers could be triggered, allowing regulators to break up Wells.”

It will be interesting to see if Wells Fargo can survive or, as so many of the formerly well-known brands that were lost in the downturn, Wells Fargo becomes yet another bad memory of a brand that lost its way.

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