When Citibank gave us the opportunity to compete for its business in 1999, it wanted to take a different approach to both banking and brand management. Thanks to a radical transformation in the industry, this new approach was almost a necessity because there were new forces from outside the banking category threatening the cozy status quo. In the 1990s, there had been massive consolidation. From 1990 to 1998, more than 4,000 banks merged in the U.S., reducing the number in operation by 30%.
Second, recent legislation had increased the number of services that banks could offer. Whereas banking was once a local concern, now megabanks could compete nationally and offer a broader range of products. Furthermore, the new regulations stopped protecting banks from the competitive forces of the marketplace. Players like General Electric, Microsoft and the carmakers were offering credit-card and consumer-lending services.
Complicating matters, the category was reaching full commodity status. Banks had become the utilities of the financial world. With parity in product and distribution, not only did people not care about banks, many also didn't care which bank they used. Even Citi's credit-card business lacked traction.
To thrive, Citi would have to find a credible and relevant reason for customers to choose it. In other words, it'd have to juice the orange and use creativity to forge a competitive advantage.
At Citi, Anne MacDonald, chief marketing officer- global consumer group, and Brad Jakeman, managing director of global marketing, faced these realities and hatched an audacious plan: to transform Citi into a global power brand, preeminent not only in financial services but also among other great consumer brands like Disney, Nike or Coca-Cola. The new marketing team understood that brands like Nike have stability and momentum that increase their chance for long-term global growth.
Before addressing their brand's image, the executives at Citi first made key organizational changes aimed at becoming more customer-centric in everything they did. They beefed up the quality of customer service at all touch points and added more consumer-friendly products, such as identity-theft protection for Citi-issued credit cards. But the most daring part of the plan was the way the executives wanted to position their brand. Even though they didn't fully know what the term meant, MacDonald and Jakeman wanted to make Citi the world's first "unbanklike" bank.
Listen to Your Barber
Clients normally come to us thinking inside the confines of their own category. They want the world to see them as the best insurance company or the best car company or the most recognized fast-food company. When Citibank looked at the brand-image of financial-services companies, it observed that its brand image was weak compared with its footprint in American business. Citibank wanted to stretch the boundaries. But banks didn't generate a lot of goodwill with the public. The executives understood that the way people viewed banks was too limiting for Citi's aspirations. This idea was at the heart of its desire to be unbanklike.
Before we started working on the concept of an unbanklike bank, we needed to understand Citi's existing brand image. We also needed to understand Citi's customers better than any of our competitors did and in many ways even better than Citi itself.
Citi didn't have any baggage; for better or for worse, it was an empty vessel. With the brand a blank slate, we focused on Citi's potential customers. A mass brand like Citi means a mass audience, specifically the mass of people ages 25 to 59 with household incomes of $35,000 or more. In other words, just about everybody. We jumped on every piece of pertinent marketing research we could get our hands on, but the scale and scope of the target rendered much of the existing data useless.
So we started from scratch, and put together a half-dozen exploratory focus groups.
Our planners listened hard, but this time around they weren't asking the right questions. We started getting the same answers, and they weren't very inspired ones. People talked blandly about peace of mind and security, interest rates, convenient locations and ATM fees.
Our planners have learned to watch for a spike in energy in the room. Even when a focus group bad-mouths the product or the category, we listen because passion is often a better indicator of a potential insight than optimism. But these people didn't even fake interest.
Fortunately, one of our planners needed a haircut. While in the barber's seat, he agonized over the participants' lack of interest in banking. His barber set him straight: People don't care about banks, but they care a whole lot about money and its role in their lives.
How had we missed that? We tried another round of focus groups. This time, we got people talking about their lives and the role of money in them. We purposefully avoided the actual mechanics of banking. Immediately, our planners realized they were onto something. The energy in the room picked up. People were talking about money in terms of what made them happy, what they needed to live well. Suddenly, we had human beings, and not bank customers.
Even more remarkable was what these people were saying. These focus groups took place during the dot-com boom. According to the newspapers, everyone was obsessing with retiring by age 40. Start a company, take it public ASAP and retire a millionaire. Or buy shares of an initial public offering, flip them a month later and retire a millionaire. But the people in the second round of focus groups weren't talking about IPOs or Mercedes convertibles or vacations in the Seychelles. They saw money as a means, and little more. Being a millionaire wasn't a part of the fantasy.
Their words began to ring true, even though some of our team members were workaholics who couldn't imagine "getting by" as a financial goal. But we kept listening and watching.
Over time, a pattern emerged. A new class of bank customers materialized. We labeled them "balance seekers," and we could already see how they might prefer an "unbanklike" bank.
In the spirit of simplifying the business problem, we reduced the solution to its essence: cultivate the balance seekers.
Pat Fallon ...is chairman of Fallon Worldwide. He founded the agency in 1981 and oversees the company's culture and also manages its global vision across four continents.
Fred Senn ...is founding partner of Fallon Worldwide. He is involved with talent development as Fallon expands its scope of services and geographic reach. He is the agency's chief learning officer.