Citi Investment in New York City Bikeshare Pays Off

In an attempt to improve its image after the financial crisis, one of America’s largest financial institutions sponsored New York City’s fledgling bikeshare program. The investment is already paying off for Citi.

To say that banks aren’t America’s most loved institutions is a vast understatement—five years after the onset of the financial crisis, they are pretty much universally reviled.

Financial institutions have spent untold billions to fix their images, much of it on expensive, integrated media campaigns. Bank of America touts its local business investments, bailed-out insurer AIG said Thank You America, and who can forget Wells Fargo’s cringe-inducing Girl’s First Check.

And much of it has been for naught. Trust in major brands, according to BAV Consulting’s Brand Asset Valuator,has declined 50 percent since the financial crisis; financial institutions notch just a 10 percent level of trust. “This obviously creates a huge hill to climb for traditional advertising in the banking sector because people frankly don’t like or trust banks very much” says John Gerzema, chairman of BAV Consulting. And without trust, traditional advertising’s impact is minimal.

In recent months, however, one bailed-out, much-hated bank has found salvation through an unorthodox, low-affect marketing method. We’re talking, of course, about Citi’s sponsorship of the wildly popular, just-launched New York City bikesharing program—Citibike.

Instead of forcing people to watch another soporific spot before guffawing at that clip of The Daily Show online, or getting lost in the hundreds of ads disrupting people trying to watch The Voice, Citibike offers a rolling testimonial to the brand. Every day, about 25,000 times, someone saddles up on a Citibike, which has the company’s name plastered on it prominently, and rides around Manhattan or Brooklyn, usually with a smile on her face. The company has subsidized and paid for the construction of a new transportation amenity used by city residents (who are potential Citi customers), and by tourists (who are also potential customers for Citi’s global operations).

Sure, the bikes don’t express much of a message about the company and its services. But if you spend time clicking through the ubiquitous bank ads online, you’ll quickly realize that the messages of banking and financial services blend together into a mush of positive sentiment and concern for communities. It makes all the sense in the world for banks to invest in campaigns that not only gain them goodwill with the public, but allow them to break through the clutter.

Citi’s investment of a reported $41 million, already seems to be paying off. The program has attracted about 40,000 annual members. With some notable dissents, reviews of the system have been overwhelmingly positive. And people refer to the system by the company’s name: Citibike. (In London, where Barclay’s, another bank whose brand had suffered a few dents, sponsors the bike-sharing system, people refer to the cycles as “Boris Bikes,” after London Mayor Boris Johnson.) Over the past month, according to BAV, Citi has gained in the ‘Cares for Customers’ category by 16 percent, and in trustworthiness by 14 percent.

Improving local opinion was a huge part of the reason Citi invested in the bikeshare program (which is not exactly a huge gamble given that it is one of the largest media centers in the world). Ed Skyler, current executive vice president for global public affairs at Citi and the former deputy mayor for operations under Bloomberg, tells The Daily Beast that “Citi Bike is unique, in the buzz it has generated, in its dynamic visibility to both users and observers, and in its direct link to one of the strategic areas we focus on globally—the sustainability of major cities.”

Or as brand expert John Gerzema puts it: “When a brand is in the culture—as Citi suddenly is again—it offers the opportunity for reappraisal.”