The Customer Effect

Fake apologies, anti-artists, and elitist messaging: The year in financial services marketing fails

  • Financial brands had their fair share of fails in 2016.
  • Here's a list of the biggest marketing and brand gaffes during the year.
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Fake apologies, anti-artists, and elitist messaging: The year in financial services marketing fails

It seems like a cliché when a financial firm finds itself in PR trouble these days, but it still happens pretty regularly.

You would think that large money institutions would have learned their lessons by now from past snafus. They don’t. 2016 saw some rather prolific fails when it came to financial brands being off message from what their shareholders and customers expect.

Here are a few of the largest gaffes made by incumbent financial companies during 2016:

Wells Fargo, you had me at eight (accounts)

Cross-selling products is nothing new in banking. That’s bread and butter to the business model. But when it goes public that Wells Fargo employees were fabricating account and credit card openings just to hit their high-pressure quotas of eight accounts (why, because it rhymes with “great”!), well, then you’ve firmly placed the bank opposite its customers.

Ex Wells Fargo CEO, John Stumpf

When the reigning Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf appeared in Congress to address the problem, there were a lot of other things he could have said. Instead, appearing with a cast on his arm and a recent recipient of major stock grants, he totally whiffed, making him and Wells look completely out of touch and tone deaf.

Things just got worse when Wells took out a full page ad to not apologize in the wake of the scandal.

Wells Fargo: Down with the arts!

Wells Fargo couldn’t catch a break this year. In September, the bank ran a series of print ads promoting education in the sciences. Wells was pushing something it called “teen financial education day”, and the ads featured an image of a smiling young woman with the headline: “A ballerina yesterday. An engineer today.”

Popular artists took to social media to complain that the firm was denigrating artists. This prompted the bank to issue another apology, saying it was committed to support of the arts.

Goldman Sachs, bank of the elite, now markets to the masses

Who would have thought that Goldman Sachs, a firm that traditionally serviced the mega wealthy, would roll out a consumer bank for the masses? That’s exactly what it did in 2016 when it launched Marcus, its new consumer offering.

While GS definitely wants your money and was ready to tell you why, the online experience wasn’t quite ready for prime time. Early adopters like the WSJ’s John Carney complained that the web experience was buggy, the website not easy to use, and the sign-up process clunky.

Fintech has fails, too

When big financial services firms fail with their marketing and branding, it creates opportunities for upstart fintech brands to try and get it right with customers. SoFi, an online lender, has found a lot of success with millennials looking to refinance student debt. But its first Super Bowl ad ended up striking a wrong chord.

The video ad shows a lot of young, fit, diverse 20-somethings running, walking, biking, and jogging in a city that looks like San Francisco, where the firm is based. The ad divides the world into “great” and “not great” people. The message is that SoFi only works with “great people”.

Beyond the Silicon Valley elitism in this message, the Super Bowl probably wasn’t the right audience.

“The Super Bowl is one of the great equalizers in American life: everybody watches the same game, and the same ads, at the same time, and has pretty much the same experience,” wrote Fusion’s Felix Salmon. “To use the Super Bowl to separate America’s “great” few, on the one hand, from its unwashed masses, on the other, is tone-deaf at best.”

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