Wells Fargo has taken the U.S. banking industry out of the advertising closet and it is strongly defending its actions despite a prominent backlash.
The San Francisco bank started airing a television ad that features a lesbian couple adopting a deaf child back in April, making it the first bank in the country to feature an LGBT couple in a national TV ad campaign.
The ad alienated some conservatives. The evangelist Franklin Graham in North Carolina, a son of the iconic preacher Billy Graham, recently drew media attention when he pulled the family ministries' accounts from the bank in response. Yet Wells is still running the commercial.
It is part of a nine-commercial series that also spotlights Latinos, African-Americans, Asian-Americans and small-business owners, in an effort to reach what the bank sees as an increasingly diverse customer base.
"If you look at some of the demographic data already in many of the major markets that we serve, the 'minority' is now the majority," Well Fargo's chief marketing officer, Jamie Moldafsky, told American Banker. "So this is not a stretch it's very much a demographic reality."
Commercials that celebrate diversity hardly set Wells Fargo apart. Competitor JPMorgan Chase is currently running ads that feature many highly successful people including African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Hispanics as part of a major marketing campaign.
Banks in other countries have also showcased lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender couples in their marketing. As early as 2010, Lloyds Banking Group in the U.K. ran an ad featuring a gay couple, according to The Financial Brand. And Toronto-Dominion Bank has placed ads in newspapers and magazines across Canada that featured gay and lesbian couples.
Stateside, many banks have run ads featuring same-sex couples in niche media that targeted the LGBT community specifically and have shown their support in other ways such as sponsoring gay pride events. And M&T Bank, a regional bank based in Buffalo, N.Y., has two commercials that feature a customer, business owner Gina Foringer, talking about the support she gained from her wife, Laura, who is not shown in the ad.
Perhaps it is fitting that Wells Fargo, the megabank that relies most heavily on consumer finance, was the first to take an LGBT-themed TV ad national.
It has long championed LGBT equality among its employees and customers. As early as 1987, the company included sexual orientation in its nondiscrimination policy. Additionally, the company has achieved a 100% score on the Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index for 12 years in a row; the index measures the policies and practices affecting LGBT employees at hundreds of major companies based on a survey.
Wells Fargo predecessor Wachovia also had a history of catering to the LGBT community, according to former Wachovia CMO Jim Garrity. That company used advertising to target the LGBT community, though not in mainstream media, he said.
"We were one of the first financial institutions to embrace diversity in every aspect, internally and externally," said Garrity, who now heads the marketing consultancy BridgeTwoWorlds. "It was a key part of building the culture of the company."
Consequently, the new commercial was meant to make a statement about Wells' stance on LGBT equality, Moldafsky said. And its ad agency, BBDO, sought in the overall campaign to "reveal [Wells'] soul," she said.
"Diversity and inclusion is something we live internally very strongly," Moldafsky said. "This is a very important and natural progression of [that value] in how we serve our customers."
The timing for an ad of this nature was just right, according to Chris Nichols, the chief strategy officer of CenterState Bank Winter Haven, Fla. Since 2012, half of Americans have supported same-sex marriage, according to Gallup. And in the past year alone, the acceptance rate has risen 5 percentage points to 60%. Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on whether states must allow same-sex marriages.
"Wells is now playing to the majority," Nichols said in an email when asked about the ad controversy. "A year from now, when same-sex marriage has a 65% acceptance rate, Wells will be able to tout its first-mover advantage."
Even with growing acceptance of the LGBT community though, the ad presents some risk. With baby boomers aging, nearly half of the country will be over 50 years of age in the next five years and will hold around 70% of the country's disposable income. They might not be as accepting as the overall population, according to bank marketing strategist Neal Reynolds.
"If a bank wants to target this 'rich' audience and be part of this growth market, they probably shouldn't be promoting the LGBT lifestyle," Reynolds said in an email. "This senior market is a lot more conservative, and most won't be changing their attitudes anytime soon."
But Wells Fargo officials are sticking by their ad in part because they always expected some sort of criticism.
"Clearly there is a small subset for whom some of the executions are not as relevant or meaningful," Moldafsky said. "But as a body of work, we feel very good that the work is resonating."
Part of why she thinks the ad resonates is because it embodies Wells' "total market approach" to its advertising. In other words, it is intentional that the ad, like the others in the series, had other emphases besides diversity: it also focused on the adoption process and people with disabilities. Features like these represented "a universal truth that all customers can relate to," Moldafsky said.
But even with all of the advantages that Wells Fargo expects to gain from the ad, chances are the bank will have little company for the time being in showcasing an LGBT couple.
Banking "is still very risk-averse," Garrity said. "My guess is that [Wells'] competitors are not all sitting around and saying, 'The barn door is open.' They're all watching the reaction. It won't be a mad rush."