Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Citibank's exercise in irrelevance

Several years ago, I wrote a less-than-positive review of Citibank’s new (at the time) “Live richly” brand campaign, questioning the wisdom of a bank advising consumers to consume less and pursue happiness more. This from an institution in an industry most consumers see as a necessary evil, based on my own research in the retail banking category. With a business model driven not just by consumer’s savings but also by consumption – think credit-cards, home equity lines and car loans – the whole idea just seemed to push not just the limits of brand permission, but to also press the bounds of relevance and credibility. I just didn’t get it.

Three years later, the campaign is still running, so it must be effective on some set of measures. Frankly, it’s still puzzling to me, but it’s not my money, or my bank for that matter. (I'm now with Bank of America, having been through a ten-year run of bank mergers in the Boston market, from BayBank to BankBoston to Fleet and so on.) Recently I had the chance to review the websites of some retail banks, and after spending some time at the Citi site, I was left wondering just how “Live Richly” can ever be translated into an effective interactive experience.

It’s easy to think about all the ways that you could provide visitors with all sorts of advice and information about having a great, well-balanced lifestyle that's long on personal growth and short on consumption. In some of my more reflective moments, I’ve questioned my place on the economic treadmill and found myself looking online for advice on downscaling my lifestyle. (I found one site about people moving to Ohio and emulating the Amish lifestyle. “Witness” fantasies aside, I’m too into the convenience of zippers to go that far.)

However, none of this would have anything to do with the reasons I – and most bank customers – would visit a bank’s website. We visit banks to do banking, silly as that sounds. The tasks customers bring to sites tend to revolve around specific elements of their relationship to their own money – looking at balances, paying bills, making transfers, or seeing if I can find a better deal. Making electronic banking easy and productive is job one for any bank today, and the site owners at Citibank are as busy at it as those at any other bank.

But beyond that, where can they go with “live richly?” In comparison, when Citizens Bank claims they are “Not your typical bank,” they’re working within the consumer’s frame of reference, and can offer relevant proof points online such as a "One Switch" switch kits that help consumers change their bank without missing an automated deposit or payment. It’s the same strategy that drives their new branch designs, by the way – a single, simple brand promise that can be brought to life and paid off meaningfully to consumers across the range of contacts and channels consumers will have with their bank.

In contrast, Citibank clearly has not built a platform for aligning the experiences that are the bread and butter of banking relationships today. With three years of investment, it stands to reason that “live richly” must do well against brand metrics such as awareness, preference, etc., but in a business where delivering for the customer online, in the branch and over the phone is your single best bet against churn, Citibank finds itself sorely wanting.