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More than a toaster

Giveaways were a way to attract new customers and, over time, create shared memories and lifelong relationships.
A collage of images featuring bank giveaways including a yellow flyer for First National Bank of Portland to win a free Shetland Pony, an orange advertisement for a free laundry sack with the First National logo and a collection of plush animals that represent bank mascots.
Featured photo caption: Banks offered different kinds of giveaways over time, including plush ponies, real ponies, laundry bags, and more. Photo credit: Rob Prideaux and Wells Fargo Corporate Archives.

Banks were in the middle of a banking revolution by the mid-1900s. Bank buildings had evolved from imposing temples of commerce with teller’s cages to inviting spaces with warm tones and open counters. New emphasis was placed on service and putting the customer first. Banks developed new, convenient services like drive-up windows and branches in every suburb. Banks even started to court customers with freebies, creating the most enduring symbol of bank advertising: the bank giveaway.

Three people stand at teller cages adorned with large iron bars. Tellers are visible through panes of glass on the right of the bars.
The look and feel of bank lobbies prior to mid‑1900s.
A young girl wearing a checkered dress and white bonnet with hair in long braided pigtails stands before a smiling woman teller. There are no barriers between them.
The look and feel of bank lobbies changed for customers by the mid‑1900s.

These changes experienced by customers reflected new priorities at many banks. In the early 1900s, banks generally served either business or individual customers, but rarely both. In the 1950s, that began to change. Wells Fargo had just two offices in San Francisco in the 1920s — serving mainly business clients. But that number grew between 1954 and 1960 to more than 100 branches in Bay Area communities designed to provide savings and loans services to individuals and households. By 1960, all financial institutions entered the retail market, creating more competition to recruit customers.

Five examples of coin banks against a white background. From left to right they are; A blue bank book, a green cash register, a gold bank building with a large orb on top and “Bank” written horizontally down the front, a grey space capsule and a red and yellow stagecoach.
Coin banks and other giveaways meant for children reflected the growing interest banks took in building lifelong relationships with their customers. Photo Credit: Rob Prideaux and Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

Regulations under the Banking Act of 1933, however, limited the competitive rates banks could offer on savings accounts and loans, creating an environment where all banks offered virtually the same products. To differentiate themselves, banks focused on unique services and brand development. As Richard Rosenberg, head of Wells Fargo’s first marketing department from 1960 to 1982, explained in a 1996 interview, “People don’t really buy a banking service, they buy a bank … most people buy a bank first and a banking service second, because most people believe all banks have exactly the same service at exactly the same price.”

Giveaways became a way of introducing customers to newly crafted brand identities. At branch openings, customers could expect huge affairs with small gifts and raffles for ponies, vacations, and even brand-new cars. Customers would leave the bank with their passbook and money, but also with coin banks, stuffed animals, and more. Like a bouquet of roses on a first date, these gifts were more than material objects; they represented a growing relationship.

Examples of bank giveaways against a white background. It includes a red and tan thermos with original red box with yellow lettering. A green bingo card game, a deck of cards and a calendar.
Wells Fargo never gave away toasters, and neither did many other banks. Calendars and coin banks were much more popular. Photo Credit: Rob Prideaux and Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

Over time, the popularity of these branded giveaways led some banks to develop catalogs and sales programs to offer existing customers a way to continue receiving branded merchandise. In the 1970s, Wells Fargo launched a collectibles series for customers to buy high-quality silver belt buckles and gold pocket watches with the bank’s name. By the 1990s, other banks developed merchandise stores to make branded objects available to employees and customers.

Changes in banking regulations have since removed some of the original barriers to competition that made giveaways so essential and placed new limits on a bank’s ability to give expensive promotional materials. But one thing has remained: the importance of the lifelong relationships formed between bankers and their customers.

On the right a brown plush bear wearing a green shirt with the white Norwest logo holds an offer brochure bearing his same image above a red gift box. Behind the bear are three people, two are standing and one is sitting at a table full of gift boxes in green with red bows. Plush Buddy bears are in the gift boxes and a sign on the wall reads best holiday wishes from Norwest.
Buddy Bear was introduced by Northwest Bancorporation (today Wells Fargo) to its affiliated branches in the 1970s. He became a familiar sight in towns throughout the Midwest. Photo credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives
On the left two plush tan dogs, on the right a brochure for a free offer for the plush dog, all superimposed over an animal cracker box with circus theme.
Crocker Bank (now Wells Fargo) had a variety of plush giveaways, including its box of “Animal Crockers” and its popular Crocker Spaniel. Photo credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives
Two girls in identical dresses place their tickets into a ballet box that reads: Place tickets here drawing for free pony.
Two girls enter to win a Shetland pony at a First National Bank of Portland (now Wells Fargo) branch opening in 1957. Photo credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives
On the left a blue Wells Fargo agent badge is superimposed over an image of a man dressed in a cowboy outfit signing autographs for a room full of young fans.
In 1958, Dale Robertson, star of the hit TV show “Tales of Wells Fargo,” attended the opening of Wells Fargo’s branch in Hayward, California. Excited children received posters, postcards, and a Wells Fargo agent’s badge. Photo credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives
An order form and brochure featuring collectible items such as a red coin bank shaped like a building, a leather clutch purse and key ring, belts and belt buckles.
A selection of Wells Fargo collectibles produced and sold by the bank in the 1970s. Photo credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives
A paper sewing kit with a red interior with 9 sewing needles intact. The yellow exterior has an illustration of a banker opening a round vault door and reads “Who says that we don’t give away samples.” Citizens Bank of Hartselle.
A sewing kit may not be a popular giveaway today, but banks hoped that certain products would appeal to women, who managed most household accounts at the time; this collectible penny giveaway from Citizens Bank of Hartselle, Alabama (now Wells Fargo), reflected an early skepticism of customers. Photo credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives
An advertisement in black and white for the Hug a Moose campaign, with a woman teller posing with a plush moose.
National Bank of Alaska (now Wells Fargo) had a “Hug a Moose” campaign that included an adorable plush named Barnaby and his friend Melissa. Photo credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives
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