Citigroup’s consumer bank makes $33 billion a year. Here’s how marketing contributes

Citigroup’s consumer bank made $33 billion in revenue last year and is hoping its digital transformation will help it continue that trajectory.

To that end, Chief Financial Officer John Gerspach told investors last July that digital banking will mean a 20 percent reduction in the cost of serving its 110 million customers in the U.S., Mexico and Asia.

The bank is also using new technology to acquire customers and better serve existing ones, deploying artificial intelligence (AI) to help it get better ideas for its advertising and reach audiences more accurately.

It has used a piece of YouTube software called Director Mix to create many different versions of video ads that are shown to people online — based on where they are, what websites they are looking at and other elements that might include the weather, to make the commercials as relevant as possible.

“We're creating thousands of different versions of these ads, where it's just changing based on a small nuance and it allows us to put those ads to serve (online),” Citi’s Global Consumer Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) Jennifer Breithaupt told CNBC.

Online video ads tend only to be watched for a matter of seconds, but it is well-known that people will stay longer if the content is relevant to them. “Completion rates are just so much higher because it's contextually relevant to where you are,” Breithaupt said, adding that recall rates are also higher — people later remember that the ad they’ve seen is for Citi.

Acquiring new customers and servicing existing ones online is cheaper than doing so in person, and Citi has around 700 physical locations in the U.S., compared to Chase, for instance, which has 5,100. In March, Citi announced that customers of other banks would be able to use its mobile banking app to manage their different accounts.

Along with its ongoing digital transformation, Citi wanted to make people feel positive about banking, a sector that has suffered from a lack of trust since the 2008 financial crisis that saw Citi receive a $20 billion U.S. government bailout.

It’s coming up to a year since Citi launched its first global brand advertising campaign in September 2017. The campaign, initiated by Breithaupt after she was promoted to CMO in April that year, aimed to make people feel optimistic about their future finances, using the tag line “Welcome What’s Next.”

Breithaupt also knew that music can make a commercial memorable, with 45 percent of the more than 2,000 U.S consumers who Citi surveyed saying they associate their favorite brands with specific songs or music. So it ran a series of ads featuring well-known songs such as “Into the Mystic” by Van Morrison and Gene Kelly’s “Singin’ in the Rain.”

Eminem performing at Citi's Sound Vault show in New York City in January 2018
Jeremy Deputat | Citi
Eminem performing at Citi's Sound Vault show in New York City in January 2018

“When we started this journey a little over a year ago, really creating a more emotive brand for Citi, music was a really smart and powerful way in for us… People are so much more likely to want to have your products or services or if they do have them, they engage with you more. So music is just incredibly powerful,” she said.

Its latest ad features pro-golfer Justin Thomas and his father in an emotional one-minute spot that mixes home video with current footage against the track “Holocene” by folk artist Bon Iver. Shorter ads show the golfer using Citi’s mobile app while practicing.

“We wanted to design (the app) for you to spend less time on it… Let's build something that lets people do what they need to do with us and then be done with it and move on to the moments that matter,” Breithaupt said.

Music is a key focus for Citi, being its sixth-largest spend category. “If you can get somebody to take out their plastic and pay for discretionary purchases like entertainment, we tend to take what's called their ‘full wallet position.’ So then they give you gas and groceries and all the other things that come with that relationship. So for us it's had a significant value.”

Citi's Global Consumer Chief Marketing Officer, Jennifer Breithaupt with Live Nation's Global President of Media & Sponsorship, Russell Wallach in Cannes, France, June 2018
Kevin Mazur | Getty Images | Citi
Citi's Global Consumer Chief Marketing Officer, Jennifer Breithaupt with Live Nation's Global President of Media & Sponsorship, Russell Wallach in Cannes, France, June 2018

To that end, the company has a long-running partnership with entertainment business Live Nation that gives card holders early access to concerts as well as rewards points towards event tickets. Some top spenders get to go backstage where they might hear a talk from Beyonce and Jay-Z’s tour manager on how shows are put together, or see how Madonna manages to pop up from under the stage to perform.

“(Artists) are coming up with ideas that really give people a sneak peek into their world without them always having to be available to just do a fake meet and greet where it’s just a quick picture,” Breithaupt said. Citi is also running a series of events called Sound Vault, where big-name artists perform in smaller venues, with Eminem playing at New York's Irving Plaza in January.

She is also excited about how Citi will be using Marcel, a new AI platform from ad agency group Publicis that has been much hyped as a way to “break” the holding company model that has not been reactive enough for marketers. The computer program, named after Publicis founder Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet, is meant to give brands access to all of the company’s 80,000 staff, rather than having relationships solely with individual agencies.

Breithaupt is enthused about its potential for finding new creative ideas. “Just (using) a New York-based team for everything doesn't make sense to us. We really want to have ideas and fresh concepts from around the world… It also creates a tremendous amount of opportunity for the creative world, as well as for people that might be in their first role in a tiny digital agency somewhere, to one of the major agencies that works on a different brand.”