Save Yourself the Apology

If you’ve not seen the recent Wells Fargo ads, the chances are shrinking that you will. That’s because Wells Fargo has agreed to change the creative in the materials after criticism of the content of the messages. Two examples that have contributed to the uproar are from these pamphlet pieces intended to promote Teen Financial Day on September 17th:

“Ballerina yesterday. An engineer today.”

“An actor yesterday. A botanist today.”

Whether you’re a ballerina, actor, or neither, it’s not hard to see that Wells Fargo, a perhaps well-intended and well-documented supporter of arts, culture and education made a communications error. Wells Fargo actually concedes the ads fell short of their goal. In addition to stating that they will be changing the creative, they’ve also issued an apology. And all of this comes with at least one arts organization stating the criticism is “unfortunate and unwarranted.” Go figure.

I don’t actually believe it is part of the Wells Fargo brand to be against the arts or any other bedrock element of society. And it’s not worth debating the merits or severity of the criticism. What’s more interesting is asking the question, “How does that happen?” and considering what should have prevented it. To me, the key that would have saved Wells Fargo from itself was a well-developed, well-socialized, and well-utilized Content Strategy.

Given Wells Fargo’s size and resources, I don’t doubt they have a well-developed Content Strategy. Seeing what happened with these ads though does give me pause as to whether all of the communicators had access to it and used it effectively. While a Content Strategy should at least have the elements of message architecture/framework, editorial style guidance, content audits/channels, and an editorial calendar it’s the first two, in the right hands used the right way that would have helped Wells Fargo and could help your organization. Here’s how:

  • Message architecture/framework gives an organization and anyone who could communicate on its behalf, the insight into the highest order message principles, what the organization believes and does and how it backs that up through its actions. It’s not the public-facing messaging, but rather provides the direction and parameters to create it. It’s here that the first cracks in Wells Fargo’s content for Teen Financial Day appeared. They got away from their core supportive, progress message “Together We’ll Go Far” and slid into selective, judgmental messaging by implying that “You’ll Need to Change to This To Go Far”.
  • Editorial style guidance makes sure all communicators have command of the voice, tone, plain language best practices, and technical rules that guide any content creation and the review process for it. As organizations grow, more and more voices end up being needed to share and review the organization’s messages. That brings the challenge of consistency and the need for basic rules that everyone can follow to help accurately carry the message through to content. In this case, Wells Fargo’s voice cracked fully. It’s simply not in their core personality to presume they know better or best for anyone, but that’s what they did in the campaign’s content.

So while all parts of Content Strategy are key to good content reflective of one’s brand and mission, message architecture and editorial style done wrong can send your content adrift. You can help your organization avoid apologies similar to Wells Fargo’s by keeping their importance front of mind.