Bankers scratching their heads about how to attract millennials can take some comfort knowing that generations ago their predecessors also struggled to connect with America's youth.
Crocker National Bank found a way, though.
At the tail end of the 1960s, Crocker was a venerable, century-old institution with an aging customer base and a reputation for conservatism. To refresh its decidedly mature brand image, the San Francisco bank hired a young adman named Hal Riney, handing him a mandate: Produce a spot that would resonate with younger customers.
In an interview he gave shortly before his death in 2008, Riney described Crocker as "an old-fashioned bank with old-fashioned customers trying to replace those people with some younger customers."
His solution was simple and for its time radical. Riney filmed a 58-second montage of scenes from a young couple's wedding. The copy, which scrolls across the screen as the bride and groom drive away from the chapel, consisted of two simple sentences. "You've got a long way to go. We want to help you get there."
And the Crocker name? It flashed briefly across the screen for all of two seconds as the commercial faded out.
The ad paid immediate dividends for Crocker, attracting thousands of new young customers. It also dawned on bank officials that the commercial's simplicity made it an easy vehicle to repurpose. "What [Crocker] did with the campaign is franchise it to banks around the country," Riney said.
Nearly a half-century later, reaching young people is again a major focus for banks. They are going to extraordinary lengths to grab the attention of millennial customers, only now they are relying on event marketing and mobile technology. But with the recent "Mad Men" finale reminding America how "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke" commercialized the counterculture, it's worth reflecting on a bank advertising success story from that era.
The Crocker spot's extreme soft-sell approach was unprecedented. "We had a really remarkable commercial for the time because it didn't say anything," Riney said. "All we were doing was reflecting people's lives and doing it in a way that touched that audience."
Crocker sold itself to Wells Fargo in 1986, but the commercial it made in 1970 is still talked about. To this day, it remains one of the most successful and influential bank advertisements ever made.
"It's a tribute to Hal Riney," said Paul Williams, who co-wrote the background music for the Crocker commercial with Roger Nichols, his songwriting partner at the time. "They told us at the beginning it was going to be different. It's essentially the first music video."
The other notable item about the commercial was the Williams-Nichols music that played in the background.
Following the ad's release, Williams said, he and Nichols took the tune and added a bridge and a third verse, thus turning it into a song, "We've Only Just Begun." Williams didn't hold out much hope the soft-rock tune would be a hit, though. Less than a year had passed since the legendary Woodstock music festival, and the psychedelic proto-metal rock anthem "In-A-Gadda- Da-Vida" was on top of the charts.
"You couldn't get any further away from a hit," Williams said. "In fact, I would have bet you money quite the opposite was true" of "We've Only Just Begun."
What he couldn't have counted on was the fact Richard Carpenter, who along with his sister Karen headlined an up-and-coming musical group, had seen the Crocker commercial and been struck by its musical accompaniment.
The rest, as they say, is history. The Carpenters recorded their version of "We've Only Just Begun" in the summer of 1970 and it became a monster hit. "Karen sang the song and the entire nation connected," Williams said.
Ironically, Williams said he and Nichols were not Riney's first choice to work on the Crocker commercial. Lyricist Tony Asher, who had gained fame collaborating with Brian Wilson on the Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds" album, had originally been tapped, but he broke his wrist in a skiing accident shortly before production was scheduled to start.
Over the years, "We've Only Just Begun" has become closely associated with weddings and proms, but Williams is still fond of it.
"I like to joke it has all the romantic appeal of a bank commercial," he said. "People sometimes call it plain vanilla, but I tell them vanilla can be an exquisite flavor."