Make Citi Great Again

A recent New York Times article by Michael Corkery observes that Citi is running an advertising campaign in the US during the Olympics that includes ads explaining why it is sponsoring the US Olympic and Paralympic teams and an ad first aired three years ago celebrating the 200th birthday of its precursor, the First National City Bank of New York.

I blogged about the latter three years ago, but it warrants revisiting. The ad reminds us of Citi’s history of “supporting some of the biggest ideas in modern history,” including 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.

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 three images young women riding bicycles: first a bicycle courier (shown on my home page), 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 a young woman riding up to her bakery on a scooter. The musical theme and the visual image together create a sense of forward motion and dynamism.

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 Citi’s anniversary should 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.”

Similarly, the ad about the Olympics asks “what business do we have sponsoring Team US?” and answers that athletes are “Americans who know that each small success is progress towards their larger goals,” which is analogous to Citi’s “business of helping Americans make progress whether competing in the global economy or in an international arena.”

The Citi ads were both produced in “interesting times” in the bank’s long history. The 2012 ad followed Citi’s “too big to fail” bailout in 2008 and the dramatic fall in its stock price from $60 to $2 (that was masked by a 10:1 reverse split). A business historian might observe that the “big ideas” that Citi backed, such as the Panama canal, Marshall Plan, and Space Shuttle were government projects, and the loans were likely guaranteed. The current ads come during an election campaign in which Sanders and, to a lesser degree Clinton and Trump, have demonized Wall Street.

I’ve frequently shown “Citi Turns 200” to the students in my narratives course. Unfamiliar with Citi, as it has no retail banking presence in Canada, they’ve expressed the near-unamimous opinion that Citi sounds like a great bank. American viewers might be more skeptical.

Perhaps effective advertising can improve the public’s attitude towards Citi. But if it is to become great again, it needs more than great advertising. Great advertising can divert the public’s attention from its disasters and enhance public sympathy, but to become great the bank must focus its business and deliver real results.

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