Why Can’t Wells Fargo Get Out of its own Way?

Quick, can you tell me how many years it’s been since Wells Fargo was one of the most trusted and appreciated brands in the financial sector? Don’t worry, most people can’t. In fact, Wells Fargo, as a brand, seems to have given up trying to answer that question. The company’s most recent ad campaigns are going almost all the way back to the beginning, talking about events – whether true or apocryphal – that transpired a century ago or more.

But, even as the ads are taking viewers all the way back, the brand itself seems to keep ending up in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. This continued habit of taking bad and making it worse, has a lot of people wondering why Wells Fargo can’t seem to get out of its own way. If the company could stop long enough to focus on a single PR crisis, they may make some headway in brand confidence, but that doesn’t seem to be happening.

That lack of ability to get past one crisis before another negative headline drops has some in the PR business blaming not just a few bad apples but a “faulty culture” for the continued woes. Instead of arguing that Wells Fargo was just too big and too desperate to play it straight, some are saying the company simply lost its way, slipping further into a morass that festered for years, creating a series of interwoven issues up and down the leadership chain.

The result? A culture that allowed the company to miss it when thousands of employees created millions of fake credit accounts, many in the names of very real customers. Thousands of employees were fired, and that could have been that. Wells Fargo should have been able to pick itself up, dust itself off, and get moving again.

Unfortunately, those in charge didn’t look at thousands of bad actors and see a cultural issue. They said everything was fine now that those folks were gone. Turns out, almost no one, including elected officials and federal regulators, agreed with that assessment. Soon, the CEO was sent packing. A new leader, Timothy Sloan, was brought in and given the task of giving Wells Fargo a fresh start.

But the optics were terrible. Sloan, after all, was a longtime Wells Fargo guy, and those who saw institutional corruption didn’t see renewal coming from within. Worse than the optics, though, was the messaging. While Wells Fargo promised to do better, their campaigns failed to take responsibility, and the problems were rarely, if ever, addressed.

Then came more horrendous headlines. Charging customers for insurance they didn’t want and never asked for. Hitting mortgage customers with incorrect fees. And the insult to injury, a “computer glitch” that accidentally foreclosed on hundreds of properties. Fines were levied and headlines were merciless. Wells Fargo could not seem to stop driving into the proverbial ditch.

And, speaking of poor optics, in response to the flurry of negative headlines, Wells Fargo CFO John Shrewsbury went after the media, accusing the news of over-emphasizing and over-dramatizing Wells Fargo’s missteps. While he may have a point, it certainly was not one that millions of jaded customers was in any mood to hear.

And that, in a nutshell, may signal why the company can’t seem to get back in the good graces of their customers. Instead of changing in the present they are offering visions of the past and complaints of unfair treatment.

New Line in the Sand for Vanity Fair

A change in leadership can be a defining moment for any brand. When that brand is a popular international news and culture publication, a shift in leadership can open up the opportunity for a new vision or a chance for the new leader to reinforce the brand’s current message. And, sometimes, the new leader is caught in the middle between ownership that wants a little – or a lot – of both.

When Radhika Jones took over as editor of Vanity Fair, she entered a situation in which the magazine’s ownership is engaged in a stark and wide-reaching cost-cutting program. Positions are being eliminated and some media properties are being off-loaded, even as Jones begins her tenure.

In an interview with CNN about the new challenges she faces, Jones was positive and upbeat, saying it’s a “vital time” to be in the media business. A veteran of both hard news and popular media, Jones brings a strong sense of media culture and a recognition of the tectonic shifts happening in the industry, largely driven by populist and consumer trends.

And Jones’ message? She knows what her audience wants: “Audiences are hungry for new faces and new voices… My goal is to reflect the culture as I see it…” And, culture as she sees it appears to be young, diverse, and groundbreaking. In recent months, Vanity Fair has put Michelle Williams, Felicity Jones, Michael B. Jordan, and Kendrick Lamar on the cover.

Some of her editorial choices have surprised loyal Vanity Fair readers, and Jones said this is a good thing. “It’s been heartening to me to hear that people are surprised by our cover choices…”

One of the biggest challenges put to the new editor was the future of the publication, specifically in print. Jones said she fully expects Vanity Fair to still be available in print in a decade, maybe longer. She said, despite many reports to the contrary, media consumption is not a “zero sum game.” People are consuming both print and digital, so she’s not going to give up on print any time soon.

That’s not to say Jones won’t look toward expanding on Vanity Fair’s online and social footprint. Those efforts, apparently, are partly to entice more subscribers, rather than trying to depend entirely on advertising efforts. This is a tough tightrope to walk for any media editor. Advertising has been a longstanding moneymaker for media, but that market is redefining itself almost by the day. Media companies continue to look for both short- and long-term solutions.

That’s not to say Jones is stepping away from the brand’s successful backstory. “You want to learn what the traditions are, (those) that are worth keeping and that are valuable… Then you want to learn which habits that maybe could be broken… The truth is, Vanity Fair has this fantastic formula, back from when Tina Brown reinvented it in the 1980’s. It’s about a mix of high and low. We cover these certain areas: politics and technology and finance and course Hollywood and celebrity culture. And those things are really the same. We’re doing those stories.”

business model ronn torossian

John Hancock Announces Shift in Business Model

In business, disruption in the market is inevitable. New ideas, better methods, improved tools, and sudden shifts can all create tectonic change. And, in the modern era, these changes can happen practically overnight. So, if you’re brand isn’t hearing your customers, they may be someone else’s customers before you realize it.

One of the largest – and oldest – currently operating businesses in the United States, John Hancock insurance, recently faced that stark reality. For more than 150 years, the life insurance market operated on pretty much the same business model. But, recently, consumer needs and wants have shifted, and these consumers, offered myriad options at the touch of a screen, are starting to find these needs being met in different ways.

For John Hancock, these market realities necessitated an abrupt and drastic change, explained in the following statement:

“John Hancock … will no longer sell traditional life insurance policies. All of our policies will come with John Hancock Vitality – a platform designed to help policyholders live longer, healthier lives by giving people incentives to make healthier choices linked to physical activity, nutrition and mindfulness. Our path here started with a simple, revolutionary thought: Your life insurance company should care how long and well you live…”

Someone who understands the insurance industry may read that statement and think, “well, sure, of course insurance companies want their customers to live longer… That helps their bottom line…”

Hancock’s message anticipates that perspective and addresses it, offering this:

“For too long, our industry wasn’t truly investing in the very thing it is designed to protect: life… The time to act is now – lifestyle diseases are now the primary cause of death in America. Today just four choices — physical inactivity, unhealthy diet, excessive alcohol and smoking — cause more than 60 percent of deaths and 80 percent of the disease burden in the United States, according to the Oxford Health Alliance…”

This statement reads as bold and bluntly honest. While, yes, Hancock knows longer-living people mean a stronger bottom line, the company is introducing initiatives to help improve the quality of those lives as well.

This message is communicated in simple terms, with an easy-to-remember list of “enemies” to combat: lack of exercise, bad diets, too much alcohol, and smoking. There’s also a collective call to action. John Hancock has announced its intentions, but the tone and the message implies an invitation for consumers to come along with them.

This is a smart tactic to take in communicating this change. Making it about responding directly to consumers’ needs and offering to partner with them in building a happy, healthier life, shifts the focus away from the “change,” which people often dislike, and onto the “features and benefits” being offered.

texas public relations

Texas School Superintendent Facing Uncertain Future After Comments

Sports can be a hot topic in Texas, especially football. And people can say things in the wrong way, or things they don’t mean in the heat of the moment. Happens all the time on social media. But, there are some lines that, if crossed, have greater consequences than comment thread infamy. Some lines you just don’t cross, especially if you’re in a position of public prominence or responsibility. Just ask Lynn Redden.

Redden is, at least for now, the superintendent of the Onalaska Independent School District in Piney Woods, Texas, just north of Houston. Recently, Redden was discussing his team, the Houston Texans, on the comment board of a Houston Chronicle article about Texans starting quarterback Deshaun Watson.

Watson was a big pickup for Houston, and he’s a popular player in east Texas, but he wasn’t very popular after the final whistle of the Texans game against the Tennessee Titans. Houston lost, 20-17, after Watson let the clock run down.

Redden, like many Houston fans, was upset by this decision. Unlike many Houston fans, Redden chose to offer this opinion on the Chronicle’s comment section: “When you need precision decision making you can’t count on a black quarterback.”

The race-based comment was quickly deleted, but — you’ve heard this one before — not until after it was screenshot and shared with the world, including the Chronicle.

Redden was suddenly a household name, being blasted by Texans coach Bill O’Brien: “I really don’t want to waste a lot of time responding to outdated, inaccurate, ignorant, idiotic statements… I’ll just let Deshaun (Watson’s) proven success on the field, his character off the field, speak for itself. He’s one of the greatest guys I’ve ever coached. He represents everything that’s right about football, about life… In this day and age, it’s just amazing that this B.S. exists.”

Watson, when questioned about the comment, chose the high road, saying, “May peace be with him. I worry about me, so I’m not worried about what he has to say.”

Some fans are openly and loudly calling for Redden to be fired. Meanwhile, Redden, when asked what he meant by the comment, told the news he “believed he was sending a private message…” then cited what he called the “limited success” of black quarterbacks in the NFL.

As of this writing, Redden’s ultimate fate has not yet been decided. The school board that employs him is planning a special meeting to determine what action to take, however, they have already issued a statement: “The OISD does not condone negative comments or actions against any race. The district values every individual and therefore the district will take the appropriate measures to address the situation expeditiously and completely.”

While it was necessary to make that statement, it’s what the district says or does next that will create the most public response. They would be wise to choose their public message a lot more carefully than their superintendent.

brad pitt foundation

Brad Pitt’s Foundation Facing Lawsuit

Sometimes, tying a famous name to a charity work can put a big target on that organization. If everything goes well, it’s great PR, but if things go poorly, for whatever reason, there’s that famous name in the headline.

A recent example of this is an Associated Press story in which the Make it Right Foundation is being sued over homes built in places that were devastated by Hurricane Katrina. The famous name associated with Make it Right? Brad Pitt.

The A-list Hollywood actor’s name was all over the headlines recently because of the lawsuit, which was filed on the behalf of residents of New Orleans Ninth Ward, which was one of the areas hardest hit by flooding after the hurricane. Their attorney, Ron Austin, was all over local media talking about “sicknesses, headaches, and infrastructure issues…”

Of course, Pitt’s name was mentioned prominently in all the reports. According to the story, Pitt created the foundation about two years after Katrina and hired “award-winning architects” to rebuild communities that had been scoured away by wind and fast-moving flood waters. The organization planned to build 150 new homes, billing them as “storm-safe, solar-powered, and green.” Residents could purchase the relatively affordable housing through a combination of government grants, resettlement financing, and donations from the Make It Right Foundation.

At least, that was the plan. But things didn’t quite work out that way. A decade after the first ground was broken on the project, 110 house have been built, and some are, reportedly, already falling apart. The attorney, Austin, complained of mildew, roof leaks, and sagging porches… “Essentially, Make It Right was making a lot of promises to come back and fix the homes that they initially sold these people and have failed to do so…”

So, in an effort to help devastated hurricane victims, Brad Pitt has harnessed himself and his brand to a PR catastrophe. Images of frustrated families, who already suffered unimaginable horror and loss, have been tied to his image.

In response, the Foundation sued the lumber company that provided a lot of the suspect wood, but there’s no news about how or if that suit was settled. Through all of this, Pitt has chosen to focus on the bright side, telling local media:

“I get this swell of pride when I see this little oasis of color and the solar panels… I drive into the neighborhood and I see people on their porch, and I ask them how is their house treating them? And they say, ‘Good.’ And I say ‘What’s your utility bill?’ And they’ll throw something out like, ‘24 bucks’ or something, and I feel fantastic.”

That position may not be one he’s able to hold for much longer. The recent headlines marking the demolition of one of the Make It Right houses brought this issue back into the spotlight even before the lawsuit hit the headlines. The demo, according to the media, was in response to neighbors complaining of the eyesore. In response, Make it Right, though not Pitt, responded with this statement:

“Our homeowners’ well-being and privacy are some of our top priorities and we work closely with them to address their concerns… Each situation is different and we are currently coordinating the necessary follow up with the appropriate parties to address any areas of concern.”

Given the direction this narrative is going, they may want to consider “coordinating” faster… and shifting to a more empathetic message.

 

nabisco public relations

Nabisco Unleashes Lions and Elephants

It’s been about a year since Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey announced it would be closing down its namesake circus. Now, both in response to that decision and in a pretty clever play to get some attention for a brand that’s been more or less forgotten by today’s kids, Nabisco has “uncaged” the cartoon animals on its animal crackers box. Fully 116 years after “Barnum’s Animal Crackers” first appeared, the animals on the boxes are no longer “traveling” in circus train cages.

Now, the menagerie – which includes an elephant, zebra, giraffe, and gorilla – is free and seems to be charging right off the box. This posture is much more likely to grab the attention of kids wandering the grocery store… as well as their parents, who are being barraged with articles touting the change.

According to most reports, Nabisco’s decision to release the beasts was at the request of PETA, and having this organization involved certainly ensures the stories will be bigger and the responses louder. Of the many politically-tinged organizations out there, PETA is one of the best at generating headlines… as well as attention from both supporters and, especially, detractors. For media outlets, the connection was too good to pass up, and PETA, as always, was ready with a statement. Most of the stories covering this change are also reporting that PETA approached Nabisco’s parent company, Mondelez International, with allegations that circuses like the one depicted on the boxes “often beat, chain, and whip animals…”

Mondelez issued a statement downplaying PETA’s influence in the decision, saying: “It’s probably one of, if not the oldest, (product) in our portfolio… We’re always looking to see how to keep it modern, to keep it contemporary with customers.”

Whatever you feel about the decision to redraw the boxes and the animals adorning them, from a public relations perspective, this was a well-executed campaign. Not only did Nabisco get the media to plaster a photo of its boxes in print, on TV, and online for days, PETA was able to piggyback on the campaign, getting a lot more mileage out of the story than they may have otherwise. PETA, of course, used the incident to remind the media of its successful campaigns against the actual circus, as well as other performing animal shows.

For Nabisco, the benefit is that untold numbers of parents are now going to make a point to look for the animal crackers on grocery store shelves coast to coast, something they may not have done since their children were toddlers.

5WPR CEO Ronn Torossian

taco pr

Chipotle Stares Down Yet Another PR Crisis

Remember when Chipotle was the toast of the restaurant industry? They were the top “fast casual” joint, a place Millennials flocked to the same way their parents flocked to McDonald’s and Taco Bell. Families loved Chipotle too. The impression was that the food was fast, but it was also “healthier.”

That was before people started getting sick…

The brand endured a massive PR crisis, struggled through lost revenue, then started the long, hard climb back into the good graces of their somewhat lessened legion of fans. It had been months of “no news is good news,” then, another devastating headline. Hundreds of diners were reporting becoming ill after eating at a Columbus, Ohio area Chipotle. When the food at that location was tested, a bacteria that grows on food left at unsafe temperatures was found… and that was just the beginning of the bad news.

Once again, Chipotle faced a PR crisis. This time, though, there was precedence. People were beginning to think of the trouble as a trend. The company had to do something big, something bold, and something drastic to show disaffected and disgusted diners that they were serious about food safety.

Recently, Chipotle CEO Brian Niccol released this statement: “Chipotle has a zero-tolerance policy for any violations of our stringent food safety standards… We are committed to doing all we can to ensure it does not happen again.”

That, of course, would not be enough. After all, this was “again,” and customers were quick to let the company know that. In response, the company said it will take the time to “retrain the entire staff on food safety and wellness protocols…”

That certainly seems ambitious. Chipotle employs 70,000 people in about 2,450 locations. But, this time, “training” may not be enough. After all, Chipotle did the same thing last time this happened. Back in 2016, the company shut down all its stores to deliver a food safety seminar to employees at every location. Now, about two years later, here they are again.

It would be tough to fault customers who are thinking “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice…” Even if they have never, personally, had an issue with Chipotle food, they may not think taking the risk is a great idea. Especially since there are so many other options out there. Since the success of Chipotle, the “fast casual” industry has exploded. There are popular chains and standalone diners catering to just about every taste, and these customers are happy to go elsewhere.

Going forward, Chipotle will have to offer customers more than another training day to get them to feel comfortable eating there again.

5WPR CEO Ronn Torossian

Why GM Loves the Transformers

Critics may love to mock director-producer Michael Bay, but he continues to laugh all the way to the bank, stacking up hundreds of millions in profits on movie after movie, mostly summertime popcorn fare with as many explosions as lines of dialogue. Audiences know they’re not getting Shakespeare. They love Bay movies for exactly what they are, and big-name brands love Bay movies for the massive exposure they receive for splashy and obvious product placement.

While Bay is known – and some would say renowned – for his myriad products prominently placed in every film, it’s probably safe to say that no brand has been more prominent in a Bay film than General Motors.

When the world first learned that Bay would be at the helm of a live action retooling of the hugely popular 80s cartoon and toy line, Transformers, it had to be a watershed moment for many automotive manufacturing marketing departments. This was going to be a series of movies where the cars were the stars. Whoever got in on that stood make a huge impact.

Turns out, that company got to be General Motors, who used the first Transformers movie to roll out a new model of an iconic sports car, as well as signature models of just about every auto body style imaginable.

There was the Pontiac Solstice, the GMC TopKick, the Hummer H2, and the most visible star of the show, the brand new Chevrolet Camaro concept car. In fact, the human characters in the film also say the word “Camaro” multiple times, in case the audience missed the ‘slow-roll’ vignette of the new Camaro gliding up to the lead actors. GM would go on to sell fleets of “Bumblebee” inspired Camaros, making this partnership with Bay’s Transformers a massive PR win.

In the follow up Transformers film, GM would introduce a concept Corvette Stingray, as well as a Chevy Volt, Beat, and Trax concept vehicle. In every scene, along with the prominent Autobot emblem, the automaker’s logos are front and center.

There’s no doubt both Bay and his main product placement customer, GM, benefited greatly from the partnership. The vehicles look impossibly cool, and the target fan base of 18 to 40 year old guys found themselves dreaming – and eventually going out and buying – their own “Transformer.”

Whether fans love the product placement in Bay’s movies, or they love to joke about it, companies will continue to line up to get the exposure as long as he keeps producing massive blockbuster hits.

5WPR CEO Ronn Torossian