MINNEAPOLIS and SAN FRANCISCO - It might seem strange that Minnesotans need a parade to help them get used to having Wells Fargo & Co., and not Norwest Corp., in their own backyard.

After all, Richard Kovacevich, the well-known former chairman of Norwest, is now chief executive of Wells Fargo and has transplanted his hallmark high-touch, sales-oriented culture to the San Francisco banking company.

Yet Wells Fargo, which merged with the former Norwest 18 months ago, has arranged for a combination of fanfare and historical indoctrination to prepare its Minneapolis market to be converted to the combined company's systems in July.

Part branding and part cultural exchange, the effort is perhaps the largest in scope yet undertaken by Wells in its attempt to smooth the integration of its operations with those of a merger partner.

By the time Wells Fargo sends its trademark stagecoach rattling across the Minnesota prairies to advertise the conversion of 166 Norwest branches and 800 signs to the Wells Fargo name and logo, bank staff will have been primed with a history lesson emphasizing how far back Wells Fargo's ties to the state - and Norwest - really stretch. The program starts with speeches by senior executives of the combined company and filters down to socials hosted by managers of Wells' small-town branches.

"We said, Let's present a combined history of the two companies that we already know is very similar," said Andy Anderson, senior vice president and historian for Wells Fargo. Mr. Anderson, a PhD who has spent 23 years at Wells, is familiar with the drill, having worked to reveal historical links in previous mergers that can help paper over the perception of the bank as an out-of-state interloper.

Some examples from the latest primer:

  • William Fargo, the co-founder of the original Wells Fargo, was also an original investor in Northwestern National Bank of Minneapolis, a predecessor to the modern Norwest Corp.
  • Routes for stagecoaches, which formed the backbone of the 19th-century Wells Fargo express delivery and money handling system, run throughout Minnesota. One even leads to Fargo, N.D., the town named after Wells Fargo's co-founder.

Even the two banks' visual imagery has more in common than first meets the eye. To celebrate its golden anniversary in 1922, Norwest used a picture of a cattle-drawn covered wagon to advertise itself. Later in the century the company changed its logo to the coolly corporate letter 'N.'"Here it is 1998 and we're going to the stagecoach - so we're really speeding up!" James R. Campbell, regional head for Minnesota, Indiana, and Ohio, tells employees in an internal video, "Making History: Wells Fargo and Norwest in Minnesota," as he displays the original Norwest logo.
Despite the aw-shucks image that permeates the bank's own marketing - the same video puts a cowboy hat on Mr. Anderson, the historian, which he waves as he utters a cowboy holler - both new and old Wells take the historical brand very seriously.

As merger talks progressed two years ago, Wells Fargo chairman and chief executive Paul Hazen and Mr. Kovacevich closely examined the market strength of the Wells Fargo name and image. By the time they shook hands over the merger publicly in June 1998, the decision to carry on the Wells name and its frontier branding, marked by the stagecoach, had been sealed.

Observers say Wells made the right decision. Even if many Americans don't associate the stagecoach with checking accounts or online banking, simple recognition cannot be underestimated. Wells Fargo armored cars, movie Westerns featuring brave Wells Fargo delivery men, and even a song in the movie "The Music Man" fueled the brand's sticking power.

"Wherever you have icon brands, those powerful brands are especially helpful when you move into acquisition mode," said Peter Harleman, vice chairman of Landor Associates, a San Francisco branding and design firm that advised Wells Fargo in the 1980s.

"One of the biggest challenges is when you don't have anything to taste and touch," Mr. Harleman said. In contrast, "Cowboys are readable anywhere."

Wells Fargo used a playbook written in the mid-1980s. There's the story of Wells Fargo as a banker to the gold rush, and the daring delivery agent who crossed the country with the Pony Express. Then, there are the bits of local lore, such as the discovery that a Wells Fargo office once stood on the site of a current Norwest branch.

"Every state, virtually every town, has a piece of Wells Fargo history that we can resurrect," said Dr. Anderson, who spends much of his time visiting banking centers across the West and Midwest, talking about the banks' common history and their ties to the state.

Will this Wild West image fly in Minnesota, which prides itself on its down-home image?

Minnesota has lost several major corporations to mergers, with Norwest one of the latest. Although the conglomeration of Midwestern banks that made up the original Norwest only took on the contemporary Norwest brand and identity in 1982, it produced some notable cultural artifacts.

For one, there was the large "weather ball" atop the old Norwest building in downtown Minneapolis (the building burnt to the ground in 1982) whose color reflected temperature and precipitation; a jingle reminded Twin Cities' inhabitants how to read the weather ball.

Norwest also worked its way into the local consciousness with a long-running television campaign in which a typically a self-effacing Bob Newhart assured customers that it could do anything - well, almost anything - they required.

"Norwest is the hometown brand - it's endeared itself to this market, primarily through the behavior of the bank," said John Karlson, a senior vice president and director of strategic development at Martin/Williams Advertising in Minneapolis, the agency of record for cross-town competitor U.S. Bancorp. More than the name change, the departure of the bank's headquarters has been a sore spot. "I don't know if there is any message than can diffuse that," Mr. Karlson said.

To try to overcome any animosity, Wells plans a parade in downtown Minneapolis and the opening of its fifth museum, this one in the gleaming Norwest Center. A Wells Fargo stagecoach already graces the lobby.

Mr. Campbell, one of the former Norwest's most visible executives in Minnesota, is in many ways a product of this concerted historical effort - he celebrated his 36th anniversary at the bank this month.

He clearly would have been happy to stick with Norwest's simple logo.

But the native Minnesotan has adjusted. Just back from a fishing trip with long-standing customers of the bank, he points to a row of boxes in the hall: miniature replicas of the Wells Fargo stagecoach he's sending as thank-you gifts. He displays the covered-wagon Norwest logo on a plaque.

"History has helped us bridge the incredible transformation we're going through," Mr. Campbell said.

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