July 27, 2018

How a bank commercial led to a hit song

Find out how a song originally written for a bank commercial became a hit — and one of the most popular wedding songs.

It was 1970 when California’s Crocker-Citizens National Bank realized it had a problem with name recognition. The bank ran an advertising campaign for its checking account in the 1960s, and was discouraged to learn that some potential customers saw the ads and called competitors also named “Citizens.” After a series of mergers and name changes, people had trouble distinguishing it from other banks.

Some people recognized the Crocker name but remembered it for its commercial and trust services. They saw it as a bank for businesses, not households. Over time, Crocker had become a bank fixated on retail banking. It had been investing in innovative services like credit card accounts and colorful checks with lines of credit. It opened and expanded its branch network to have 280 offices across California. This was in response to California’s growth; it became the most populous state in the nation in 1970.

An illustrated family tree of Crocker-Citizens National Bank and its subsidiaries and affiliates from 1969.
The family tree of all banks and mergers for Crocker-Citizens National Bank by 1970. Within a year, it changed its name again to Crocker National Bank. Click on the image to see a larger version.
Photo: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

Crocker had more than 1.3 million deposit accounts in the competitive California market, but it knew it needed to attract new customers to survive. A large cohort of baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) were growing up and needed their first car loans, mortgages, and savings accounts. It had a lot of work to do to convince customers that it was a new bank with the services people needed.

Crocker turned to its advertising agency to create an ad campaign that would attract younger customers. The agency appointed Hal Riney to figure it out. While later recognized as one of the best advertising executives of his time, Riney was just starting out his career. He had a vision for a new kind of commercial: a warm, storytelling video with a song and the bank’s name, with no additional product information.

In a 2009 documentary, “Art and Copy,” Riney remembered the moment he pitched his idea: “So I went to the president of the bank, and I said, ‘You know, I think what we ought to do is we ought to take some of your money and go out and get a whole bunch of songwriters to write a song about young people and their lives and how their lives are changing and things like that. And I can’t tell you what the song is, because I’m not a songwriter. And I can’t even tell you what the commercials are, because I can’t tell you that until we do the song.’ He said, ‘That’s pretty vague …’”

Despite any misgivings, the bank went ahead with Riney’s creative vision.

Riney hired songwriter Paul Williams and music composer Roger Nichols. Despite what he told Crocker management, Riney’s ad team had already created a slogan and focus for the commercial. Williams and Nichols were given the slogan — “You’ve got a long way to go. We’d like to help you get there” — and an explanation that the commercial would feature a couple getting married. They wrote the music and lyrics in an afternoon.

A blue square record cover has musical staff and notes. Underneath, the title, We’ve Only Just Begun, and name Crocker Bank appear. Behind the album are three round black music records.
The cover of Crocker Bank’s hit song. The bank used the vinyl single as a promotional giveaway.

The commercial launched in 1970 and became an immediate hit. Branches were flooded with requests to use the song at weddings and graduations. Deposits and loan volume increased. Brand recognition improved with younger customers. The ad’s success was credited with its simplicity. By using no product or service announcement, it was a revolutionary new type of commercial. It focused on the customer, not the bank. As Williams reflected at the time: “We added a song, not a sales pitch. And the song has universal appeal. … It says something meaningful to people, regardless of time.”

The commercial caught the attention of one young man, singer Richard Carpenter. In 1970, he asked Williams and Nichols for the music. On Sept. 12, 1970, the Carpenters released their album “All of My Life” which included a version of “We’ve Only Just Begun,” sung by Karen Carpenter, that peaked at No. 2 on the charts in November 1970.

Where did you first hear the song “We’ve Only Just Begun?”

“We’ve Only Just Begun” was a turning point song for almost everyone involved. Its popularity helped the Carpenters win the Best New Artist Grammy in 1971. It was the first hit single for Williams, who went on to have a long list of popular songs, including “Rainbow Connection” for The Muppets and “You and Me Against the World.” Nichols went on to become a Grammy Award-winning engineer and music producer.

The song had a lasting legacy for the bank as well. While the commercial only ran for a short period in California markets, people across the nation remembered the song and its connection to Crocker Bank for years.

Watch the original Crocker Bank commercial. (1:00)