Changing the Story: Citigroup’s Upbeat Innovation Narrative

While travelling in Australia, I repeatedly saw Citigroup’s latest advertising campaign, which readers can access on Citi’s website (citigroup.com) or its YouTube channel. The ad is intended to “change the story” – a term used cynically in the movie Wag the Dog – from Citi’s current perilous state to its glorious history.

Citigroup’s precursor, the First National City Bank of New York, is now 200 years old. The one-minute ad reminds us of its history of “supporting people, ideas, and innovations that make things better.” Specifically, the ad mentions the first transatlantic cable (1866), the Panama Canal (1904), the Marshall Plan (1948), the ATM (1978), and the Space Shuttle (1995). The ad attempts to reframe the banking business from merely lending money to actively supporting ideas. And many of the ideas that Citibank was supporting had their origins in the public sector.

The ad’s writers are too clever to leave the story floating in the domain of big ideas and big innovations. They begin with the question of why should Citi’s anniversary be of interest to you, the audience. The penultimate image in the ad shows a young woman opening a Chinese bakery, hardly a big idea. But the intent is to create identification between the big ideas Citi is proud to have supported during its history and everyday small business lending. The ad concludes with the message that “the next great idea could be yours.” This desire for widespread identification is likely the reason that the ad didn’t show more avant-garde ideas, such as web or biotech start-ups.

The ad drives its story with two recurring motifs. It uses a catchy upbeat eight-note theme from beginning to end, introduced on keyboard and repeated in the strings. It uses an image of a young woman riding a bicycle three times: first a bicycle courier, second a young woman bicycling through the ruins of post-war Europe to illustrate the Marshall plan (an iconic image I’ve seen before), and finally the young woman rides up to her bakery on a scooter. The musical theme and the visual image together create a sense of forward motion and dynamism. That the bicycle rider was female, combined with the person using the ATM being black, was intended to communicate a message that the contemporary Citigroup is a more diverse institution than its precursor First National City Bank of New York.

The YouTube channel tells us that this video has been watched over one million times. It has gone viral because it is pleasing, optimistic, even inspirational. It is yet another illustration of the heroic fable, but in this case there are three heroes: the bank, the innovators of the past who succeeded in part because the bank supported their ideas, and finally the innovators of the future, no matter how small their innovations might be.

While watching the ad, you can forget about Citibank’s problems as a bank that has been deemed too big to be allowed to fail, but that is too over-extended to be able to succeed. A powerful narrative has the ability to “change the story,” and Citigroup’s story-tellers have done just that – at least temporarily.

 

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