How Not to Frame ...


Nothing says storytelling like the “F” word.

Point to a movie or book or TV show that captivates, and I’ll show you failure.

I’m currently watching “Better Call Saul.” The man goes from untangling drug lords from their legal difficulties to shaping dough at Cinnabon, the classic story arc with the requisite failure.



My wife and I watched “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” in which Frances McDormand deals with failure of Biblical proportions.

Those in the entertainment business understand a simple concept. The human mind loves drama. Failure forms the trigger for drama. Hence, the need for failure.

As Kurt Vonnegut put it in his eight tips for storytelling:

Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

As I’ve shared in several posts, this isn’t an easy one for those who toil in business communications. Companies aren’t keen to share the “awful things” that happen to their executives, often from their own doing. Yet, what happens when a company embraces failure without really understanding the concept?

We end up with the gang that can’t bank straight.

When I first saw the Wells Fargo TV ad, I wondered how a company with access to so much branding talent could get storytelling so wrong. Then, another potential scandal recently surfaced — Justice Department scrutinizing whether Wells Fargo’s pursuit of low-income housing credits involved colluding with developers. And I know the answer.

To put it in scientific terms, these people don’t know what they’re doing. And it doesn’t help their cause that they have the empathy of Ramsay Bolton.

Here’s the copy from the initial 25 seconds of the Wells Fargo corporate ad.

We know the value of trust.

We were built on it.

Back when the country went west for gold, we were the ones who carried it back east.

By steam. By horse. By iron horse.

Over the years, we built on that trust.

We always found a way.

Until we lost it.

But that isn’t where the story ends.

That’s the failure — “Until we lost it” paying it off visually with a newspaper headline?



By the way, I would have showed the video of the corporate ad, but apparently Wells Fargo agrees with my perspective. They took down the offending communications.

I can see our advertising brothers and their branding cohorts sharing the upshot from the focus groups with the Wells Fargo executive team, that EVERYONE has a negative perception of the bank. Rather than fight it, let’s make it work for us. Specifically we tell a story in which we own up to the problems, right the failure, and then articulate how we’ve changed with the overarching message of remorse.

But they never own up to the problems; hence, no drama, and the storytelling flatlines.

Perhaps more fundamentally, you don’t start the process of rebuilding trust from a deficit position through a 60-second ad.

The ad should have been a stage setter for an integrated campaign that piece-by-piece showed the world that a) Wells Fargo does regret its past behavior, and b) meaningful change is in motion all with the single goal of serving the customer.

Storytelling can’t spin this tale.

Storytelling can only put a magnifying glass on Wells Fargo’s behavior which looks worse blown up.


  • Daily PR Brief - Wed 08/15/18 - ITK Blog

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