Wells Fargo Logo
Wells Fargo Logo
Nine stuffed animals, including a pony, bear, and dogs, are propped up in front of a light brown background. Behind them are yellow papers, one that doesn't show much, and one that says: Have we got a bag for you.
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

Ponies, vacations, and cars: The story behind bank giveaways

As banks like Wells Fargo underwent a revolution in the mid-1900s, giveaways were a way to attract new customers and, over time, become reflections of shared memories and lifelong relationships.

December 7, 2018
Alyssa Bentz

Alyssa Bentz is a Wells Fargo historian.

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.

A black and white photo shows a woman and three men standing at bank windows where two of the male tellers are shown. The windows have metal bars and are over a marble wall.A black and white image shows the back of a girl with braids and a bonnet over a checkered top standing at a bank counter. Behind the counter is a woman with a white-collared shirt and sweater over it.

Use the slider to see how 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.

Several items are side by side and in front of a white background. Two books are laying on top of each other and are next to a blue coin bank. The others appear to be figurines, one in the shape of a space shuttle and one as a red 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.

Several items are in front of a white background and propped up against each other. They are a tan and red vacuum bottle or thermos and its box. a green bingo card, a calendar, and what appear to be matchboxes.
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 team members 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.

Three people smile at the camera as they sit or stand near green boxes and brown stuffed bears. Behind them it says: holiday wishes from Norwest. To the right is an up close photo of the bear wearing a green shirt that says Norwest Banks.
Two stuffed animal dogs are in front of a red background that shows a ringmaster in the middle. To the right a flyer says: Get me free with a $300 savings deposit. Take home a Crocker Spaniel. One per account, while the litter lasts.
A black and white photo features two girls in dresses who hold pieces of paper over a box that says: Place tickets here, drawing for free pony. One girl is looking at something to her left, and the other looks at the camera.
A man in a dark suit and cowboy hat smiles at the camera. He is behind a counter, and on the other side there are many people standing as they hold out posters and pieces of paper. To the left is a blue badge image saying Wells Fargo agent.
An order form is shown with the items for purchase. Two items have labels that say: historic coin bank and stylish clutch purse and key ring. To the right, it says: Wells Fargo Collection and also shows a cuff link, journal, belt, and belt buckle.
A red sewing kit with needles showing is open and on the left. To the right is a yellowed paper that says: Citizens Bank of Hartselle, Hartselle, Alabama, on one side. On the other side it says: Who says that we don't give away samples?
Two black and white papers are side by side. One has two drawn moose and it says: Barnaby has a Brand New Friend! Meet Melissa Moose. The other has a teller with a plush moose and says: Hug a moose today!
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
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 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
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
A selection of Wells Fargo collectibles produced and sold by the bank in the 1970s. Photo credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives
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
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