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Sometimes The Giants Shoot Themselves: Wells Fargo Illustrates the Importance of Trust

As giants go, Wells Fargo was a big one. In 2008 it became a coast-to-coast super-bank with $1.4 trillion in assets and 48 million customers. From there, Wells Fargo grew to the point where it became the largest mortgage company in the country, providing one in every three home loans. 

Everything should have been awesome. But it wasn’t. Things began to go catastrophically wrong, and people – Wells Fargo customers and the general public – felt like they couldn’t trust the bank any more.

Side-Eyeing the Giant: What Causes Trust to Be Lost?

In the course of my research into how customers gain and lose trust in brands, I’ve seen several companies – giants, if you will – stumble through a scandal, recover, and emerge smarter and stronger. The opportunity was there for Wells Fargo to move past an admittedly massive fake accounts problem successfully. 

But that’s not what happened. Instead, during the pandemic, Wells Fargo unfairly denied hundreds of struggling homeowners loan modifications. The number of foreclosures, along with heartbreaking stories of families losing their homes, dominated the news cycle for months. The bank blamed their software, but from the public’s perspective, the giant stumbled again. When Wells Fargo had to pay 1,800 homeowners over $12 million in compensation, that made headlines too.

No Trust, No Love: What Are You Going To Do When You’re Your Only Friend?

Wells Fargo lied, cheated, and made little kids homeless. That’s a lot to come back from, particularly in terms of customer trust and love. Wells Fargo is no longer the biggest bank in the country. They’re third – and the new leadership is talking about not being tethered to past ambitions. They’re no longer interested in being #1 simply for the sake of being #1 – which is exactly the sort of sour grapes rhetoric you get from a brand that knows it’s never going to be on top again. 

That being said, there’s a lot to be said for right-sizing an organization during troubled times. If you have parts of your business that carry great potential to leave you looking like a bad guy unless a number of unlikely things happen perfectly, it is a good idea to stop those parts of your business. In other words, make choices that build the trust you have with your customers. 

To this end, it’s encouraging to see Wells Fargo focusing on their existing customer base and communities where their bank already has a presence. Maintaining strong relationships requires effort even when everything is great. When the boat is rocky, it’s a little harder to keep everyone on board. An increased emphasis on customer satisfaction makes a lot of sense right now. 

Will Wells Fargo stabilize after shrinking – or even start to grow again? 

If the answer to either of these questions is Yes, we will need to see the bank begin behaving in a way counter to its behavior for decades now. It will require radical change to bring the brand into a position where they’re both trusted and loved. But in this world, anything can happen – and I can’t wait to see what does. 

What do you think? What does the future hold for Wells Fargo? What would it take, in your eyes, for the bank to become more trustworthy? I look forward to hearing your thoughts. 


Brand Trust: How to Build and Protect Your Most Important Asset in 2022

Of all the factors that go into creating Brand Lovers – those shoppers who will come to your store time and time again, even when they have other convenient options – trust is the one that’s entirely within the brand’s control. No matter what’s happening in this world, you can always choose to be trustworthy.

Every single interaction you have with your customer is an opportunity to demonstrate trustworthiness. There are a couple of ways to illustrate this idea. Let’s pick two – pricing and policies – to point out opportunities to create trust.

Pricing & Policies –  Understanding The Infrastructure of Trust

Pricing first. No matter what you’re selling, from diet soda to diamond tiaras. Your customers are going to be aware of the price. Trust is established, at least to a minimal degree, if the price they encounter aligns with their expectations. When things don’t line up, trust starts being damaged right away. If a diamond tiara only costs $20, you don’t trust that it’s the real thing. This can work in your favor. If you’re a specialty gourmet foods retailer, let’s say you might be able to sell a diet soda for $20 to the connoisseur looking for a particularly unique flavor. They may have never heard of the brand, but they’ll buy it because they trust you & your store. That being said, if they pay that $20, that diet soda better be the best one they ever had.

If your pricing deviates significantly from the market, there needs to be a credible reason why your customer won’t trust your prices. And if your prices can’t be trusted, the relationship you have with this customer will not go too far. More than half of all shoppers price check; two-thirds will check prices online while shopping in-store. Is Will having trustworthy prices close the deal? Not necessarily, but even the opposite appearance will lose your business.

The Power of Policies

Policies are precisely what I’m talking about when we get into discussing the infrastructure of trust. Every business has policies – how do you return merchandise, is it acceptable to bring a pet into the store, is it necessary to wear shoes in the establishment, and so on. In terms of establishing and maintaining trust, what the policy is isn’t nearly as important as if the procedure is clearly communicated and consistently applied.

Consistent application of policy allows your customers to trust that the experience they have in your establishment is one that they can expect to proceed in a specific fashion. If your fine dining restaurant has a dress code, your guests can reasonably expect to eat their dinner without looking at someone wearing a bathing suit, flip flops, and towel. People who are underdressed can trust that they’ll be able to dine comfortably once they too are suitably attired – and that no one else is getting away with dodging the standard they’ve been asked to meet.

Assuredly, these seem like simple points – but they’re the points that make or break relationships on a day in, day out basis. If your customer retention rate is just not there, it’s a good time to do that close perspective examination of your operation, focused on whether or not your customers trust you on that granular level. If the answer is not yes, the good news is it’s entirely within your control to improve.

Can Customers Trust Your Brand?

So we’re at an interesting and unique place in our examination of trust and what it means for a brand to be trustworthy. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has had impacts all around the world. What a brand chooses to do or not do now has reverberations that extend far beyond their company’s financial performance.

A brand’s character is demonstrated by its actions. Customers are watching what their favorite brands are doing at this time. This is the moment when loyalty is won or lost on that forever basis.

Knowing What The Right Thing Is Can Be Complicated: The Hierarchy of Trust

Important to remember: we’re less than a month into the invasion. Events are happening very quickly, and brands (just like the rest of us) haven’t had much opportunity to understand what’s going on, never mind craft the correct response to it. Everyone is operating on the fly during a complex, difficult situation.

That being said, what we’ve seen emerging is that this is one instance where size definitely does matter. Small to mid-sized brands appear to be taking inspiration and direction from how larger organizations are announcing their decisions to limit or cease doing business with Russia at this time.

You can see this playing out in many areas, but for this, we’ll use the world of sport as an example. Fairly immediately after the Russians first invaded, FIFA condemned the violence and announced the Russian team would be subject to penalties. This was quickly seen as an insufficient response, with players from Ukraine, Poland, and other neighboring countries refusing to play against the Russian team, no matter what it would be called. FIFA was under great pressure to ban Russian teams from competing entirely but held off saying they would impose a total ban until the International Olympic Committee – IOC made a similar announcement regarding Russian participation in the Paralympics. Over the years, IOC and FIFA have had contentious relations, but in this instance, FIFA seemed ready to let the IOC take the lead.

People Trust Brands More Than They Trust Governments

According to the Edelman Trust Barometer Report for 2022, globally, people trust brands and NGOs far more than they trust the government and the media. Why does that dynamic exist?

We can’t cover all of the answers to that question here, but one cause – illustrated by FIFA’s rapidly evolving response to the Ukraine crisis – is that brands have to respond to their fans and critics in a way that governments do not. If the customer base withdraws its support, the brand fails. Even an organization as large as FIFA needs to pay attention to what its fans expect of them so that trust relationships can be maintained.

Subsequent to the IOC & FIFA other brands, including The Coca-Cola Company and McDonald’s have also announced they’re ceasing operations in Russia. Thinking of this in terms of trust, what brand promises do you think these brands are fulfilling with this decision?