Repairing reputational damage: how cross-collaboration helps the Wells Fargo trademark team

With a portfolio of valuable financial brands to protect and a position of trust to safeguard, the IP group at Wells argo provides an object lesson in how full integration can pay dividends.

Coordinating the trademark needs of any business requires a keen sense of its inner workings – a maxim that is particularly true of financial services giant Wells Fargo. To discover how its eight-person strong trademark team approaches the task, World Trademark Review spoke with Aparna M Dave, managing counsel; Robert Cameron, senior company counsel; Tony Vann, senior counsel; and Eileen Dunlap, paralegal specialist.

Wells Fargo draws on 250,000 employees across around 80 business lines, including services such as its dedicated American Express card Propel, the Cash Wise Visa card, Control Tower, Overdraft Rewind, Abbot Downing, Envision and Hands On Banking.

To ensure full protection of these varied properties, it is imperative that both the full names and the shortened names by which people refer to the brands are considered when formulating a prosecution strategy. For example, the Propel card’s full name is actually the American Express Wells Fargo Propel card. “We have a desire to shorten these names for space and ease of reading issues,” explains Cameron. “So we refer to it as the Propel card and secured registration on that
name alone.”

In the financial services industry, however, product name development is complicated by the various regulations to which brands are subject. “There are typically multiple layers to consider with names,” says Dave. “There’s the brand strategy, but also risk and compliance for regulatory requirements and the advertising concerns to ensure there’s no false advertising.”

Given the various nuances and requirements in play, it is crucial that the trademark team does not operate in a silo. Therefore, cross-collaboration with other departments defines the work that Dave and her team carry out.“There’s a lot of close collaboration with the brand strategy and business teams and the benefit we have is we can be right there with the business to discuss these issues,” she reports.

One example of how this works in practice can be seen in how the team works closely with the organisation’s Naming Centre of Excellence, where new brands are created. “There’s a symbiotic relationship between the Naming Centre of Excellence and the business,” enthuses Cameron. “It puts the brains together for strategising the branding and happens in real time as products are developed.”

Once upon a time, these tasks could have been performed at a leisurely pace, but this is no longer the case, due to fintech disruptors that burgeoned after the 2008 financial crash and have since changed the shape of the industry. “We’ve definitely seen a need to stay on top of what our competitors are doing,” Dave explains. The advent of new industry players such as Apple, Walmart and Monzo has been game-changing, adds Cameron “The seismic shift in the industry is especially due to fintech companies aggressively filing trademarks. We have to file as soon as an idea is conceived as the pool of available trademarks is narrowing all the time for financial services.”

As these disruptors are usually new to the financial sector, trademark issues between parties are often unintentional. “People aren’t necessarily trying to play off the goodwill of our marks,” considers Dave. “But the speed that things happen, and the specificity of financial services, means names can overlap.” Because of this it is crucial that Wells Fargo builds relationships. “Open discussions instead of pursuing litigation is what we try to do.”

When the company does need to kick into enforcement mode, it must manage various forms of risk across each of its product lines. One particular issue is the use of the bank’s logo and name on client lists of vendors. “Our contracts typically prohibit this practice,” Cameron notes. This is because Wells Fargo will only want to convey its endorsement and approval of vendors with proven track records. Additional issues arise from third-party domain name registrations, against which the team has executed more than 100 UDRP proceedings.

Other times, infringement can be deemed relatively harmless and, in such cases, merely requires some proactive communication. For example, thanks to the brand’s historic status, especially considering the Wells Fargo Coach logo, it will sometimes be used in a historical context. Vann tells of a family business that used the Wells Fargo logo on its website without authorisation. “We reached out, discussed the issue, and the logo was removed. But we also contacted the local branch where the business had banked for decades to make sure that our enforcement efforts did not jeopardise the relationship or substantially disrupt the customer’s business.”

Most important is the need to reduce risk to consumers – something that is a constant worry in the banking sector, which relies on customer trust. This is a keenly pertinent topic to Wells Fargo, which has suffered a number of high-profile controversies, including a $3 billion settlement this year over a fake account scandal that took place between 2002 and 2016. “You have to think carefully about protecting the customer,” explains Cameron. “We put things like fraud and consumer confusion first, especially with digital technology such as fake apps and websites.”

Because of the way that the team is integrated into the business, it can help out when the brand is hit with public controversy. “We’ve faced some reputation setbacks in the last few years and that’s meant we’ve focused on the brand and put on our legal hats to think about the law, reputational management, budget and socioeconomic concerns,” says Dave.

Creating a company culture that respects the value of intellectual property and the importance of keeping the trademark team involved has also been a priority. “The more you build a culture around intellectual property, the more the business will want to come to us first to integrate us on it and protect the IP assets for the company,” Dave explains. This has been achieved through various strategies, including training sessions and newsletters detailing the importance of the IP department.

“We manage this group using a shared email box where the whole company can send us questions, comments or issues,” Dunlap reports. It is thanks to the singular point of contact that the more than 80 business lines across five operating committees can rest assured that their needs are delegated among the team. “Within all of our different relationships with brand and marketing folks, we can collaborate on whatever issues arise.”

Thorough integration has allowed the group to work well across the business. Importantly, it has also put it in a position to take decisive action on issues. “Our obligation is to the company and not to one single internal department or business line,” explains Vann. Sometimes a business line will be so focused on its specific agenda, it does not see the overall resources, value or broader reputational impact that pursuing that agenda will have. “A difficult conversation I sometimes have to have is to tell business lines that we are no longer pursuing a matter because the risk/benefit is not worth the company’s time or resources.”

While challenging, it is nonetheless a powerful example of how the team works together to provide consistent and valued advice to the whole company. “I’m really proud of this team,” Dave says. “Over the past two years, despite all the changes that come with a new slate of leaders, our IP support has been seamless and we’re seen as trusted advisers for our business perspective, especially in a time when it’s more imperative than ever before.”

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