How Experiential Marketing Made Citi an Entertainment Giant

Citigroup turned an idea to use events to make their banking cards 'stickier' into an event marketing platform that now handles over 15,000 sold-out 'experiences' annually. From music to sports to dining to theater to face time with celebrities, people want more than banking from their banking providers.

How often do bankers get named to major entertainment industry rankings by Billboard and Variety? But then not many bankers have pioneered the use of “experiential marketing” to help a large financial player generate exposure through partnerships in events of all sizes.

“Experiential marketing is a core part of what we do now, from an overall marketing standpoint,” said Jennifer Breithaupt, Global Consumer CMO at Citigroup. “It’s truly part of our DNA.”

Breithaupt heads an international team at Citigroup that creates and executes programs and campaigns that maintain and build brand loyalty among millions of Citi credit and debit card holders worldwide. This centers on the mammoth Citi Private Pass program, which provides exclusive opportunities, preferred seating, and early access for the company’s cardholders to events that range from huge to intimate in music, sports, theater, dining, and more.

Annually, Breithaupt and her team orchestrate Citi’s involvement in about 15,000 events and experiences around the world. They could be anything from small clinics for kids with sports superstars to evenings with celebrity chefs to special access at megaconcerts.

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The experience marketing space has become increasingly crowded. During the same advertising industry conference where Breithaupt spoke, listeners heard about Mastercard’s shift into experiential marketing.

“Connecting with consumers is becoming a huge issue. The information overload is humungous,” said Raja Rajamannar, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at Mastercard. Consumers’ attention span, especially for traditional messaging channels, has plummeted.

“When consumers are saying that they hate your ads,” said Rajamannar, “to still keep on putting the same old ads in front of them is probably a little insane.”

Mastercard has relied for decades on various iterations of its “Priceless” campaign. Rajamannar noted that the concept has evolved into an experiential platform. This has become an accepted touchstone with Millennials particularly.

“The most successful companies are elevating events from a tactic to a critical strategic marketing and sales channel.”

Like Citigroup, Mastercard organizes a mind-boggling array of experiences, some complimentary for cardholders, some pricey but exclusive, all to “infuse ‘pricelessness’ into experiences.” A random sampling:

  • Learn tricks from a famous magician
  • Take a safari in the Dubai Desert
  • Cut the line at the One World Observatory
  • Learn to be a barista in your home
  • Get a makeover from one of several “unavailable” stylists
  • Craft a lamp from old bicycle parts.

While massive programs like Citi’s and MasterCard’s focus on high-level entertainment and more, many community banks and credit unions have successfully marketed with events of all sizes.

In Oklahoma, Citizens Bank of Edmond has drawn national attention for its social-media-fueled sponsorship of the “Heard on Hurd” music and street festival (on Hurd Street). In suburban New York, Bethpage Federal Credit Union sponsors a huge airshow at the popular Jones Beach State Park that backs up every road leading to the event for miles.

Large or small, what sets today’s event-driven marketing apart is an increasing level of strategic thinking, as noted in a recent study by Opus Agency and Event Marketer:

“Rather than focusing primarily on managing their budgets efficiently with the goal of flawless event execution, Fortune 500 event departments are beginning to recognize that more front-end, pre-event strategic planning leads to more successful back-end results. … The most successful companies are elevating events from a tactic to a critical strategic marketing and sales channel that aligns closely to the overall corporate marketing strategy.”

The study found that, for a cross section of consumer-based industries, 26% have a company-wide event portfolio strategy in place, and 29% are developing one.

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How a Bank Went Hollywood

Citi’s huge involvement began as an add-on to Breithaupt’s day job a decade ago with virtually no funding, she said during a recent advertising industry event. Citi made things happen by bartering with event producers. Even today, the company can often trade exposure with organizers rather than laying out cash.

“They want our marketing channels and they want eyeballs,” said Breithaupt. While entertainment giants like Live Nation dominate the mix, Citi works with hundreds of promoters.

It’s a three-way bargain, typically. Consumers get early picks at hard-to-obtain tickets or the ability to meet people with whom they would ordinarily never cross paths. Citi often gains the deal because it is bringing a huge potential customer base and marketing channels to event organizers who need to sell tickets. Event organizers increase sales and find new audiences.

Consumers’ demand is so voracious that Breithaupt said even an “inventory” of 15,000 events isn’t enough.

“We sell out everything,” she said. In the music space alone, Private Pass, now one of the world’s biggest experience marketing platforms, works with over 1,500 artists.

The Name is the Name of the Game

In spite of the accolades from Billboard and Variety for Breithaupt, banks and credit unions aren’t in the entertainment business per se. So what does a brand stand to gain from such devotion to this effort?

Part of the appeal is expansion and retention of share in the competitive consumer financial space. Offering curated offerings, exclusive opportunities, and VIP treatment adds appeal to products that can be quite generic. Many banking products are commodities, according to Breithaupt, so “having a differentiating factor like an experiential program is really important.”

This effort helps Citi become a more “emotive” brand. People forget many things, but they remember how an experience made them feel, said Breithaupt. So bringing Citi’s consumers memorable, pleasant experiences reflects on the brand.

And fun can mean business. Breithaupt said that she returned from an event sponsored by Aflac with a duck squeeze toy patterned after that brand’s obnoxious but memorable mascot. Every time her young son squeezes the duck it utters, “Aflac!”

How could she not think of the brand anytime insurance comes up? she asked, with professional admiration. “I hear it 30 times a day.”

How Does Citi Know that This Works?

Can experiential marketing’s results be measured and proven? Breithaupt said that the sellout ticket sales themselves are one metric for how well the company has matched consumer preferences. “The entertainment category is the sixth largest in the U.S., so sales is a key performance metric for a bank like us,” said Breithaupt.

“Where you put your brand depends on the landscape of the event. You don’t want it to seem like you are interrupting the event, but that you are embracing the event.”
— Jennifer Breithaupt, Citigroup

In addition, she said that Citi works its events heavily to probe attendees’ feelings about the company and to seek their suggestions for further events. She says staying in front of trends to keep bringing the best-possible opportunities to cardholders is a neverending challenge.

From time to time, she said, Citi conducts research on measurable factors. She shared some recent exclusive statistics gathered from American consumers after a sponsored live event:

  • 85% agree with the statement: “I have a much more positive perception of companies after attending their events.”
  • On average, 21 photos are taken during live events and shared on social media.
  • 38% visit the sponsoring company’s website.
  • 32% purchased the sponsor’s product or service.
  • 30% used or wore an item with the company’s logo, such as a shirt.
  • 30% recommended the sponsor’s products or services to a friend or colleague.

Overall, especially given people’s affinity for sharing on social channels, “brands need to be visible, in places that provide photo moments, shareable moments,” said Breithaupt. (Citi maintains several social media channels for its experience effort, including @CitiPrivatePass on Twitter.)

“Where you put your brand depends on the landscape of the event,” said Breithaupt. There is a balancing act here between crass and subtle. “You don’t want it to seem like you are interrupting the event, but that you are embracing the event.”

The natural intersection between experiential and social media means appeals to younger consumers. “Millennials would rather tell you about something they just went to rather than something they own,” Breithaupt explained.

However, she added that Citi’s experiential marketing is much broader than a Millennial focus. The company’s card base is so huge, she said, that “we have to have something for everybody.” One example are sports clinics for kids — the company’s targets are parents and grandparents who carry Citi cards.

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Keeping Experiential Marketing on the Edge

The marketing executive said Citi has begun trying out some new formats. One is Citi Sound Vault, launched during Grammy Week in 2017. This consists of small venue gatherings with global superstars. The only way someone can attend is by having some relationship with Citi, according to Breithaupt. She said Citi has had 19 of these branded events so far, and generated 1 billion impressions as a result.

“This gives us the chance to curate some really special things,” said Breithaupt.

A current experiment involves for-pay streaming. The concept is to offer experiential events without the necessity of physically going to a stadium or club to attend a performance, yet gaining access not available to others.

Breithaupt said that an overriding benefit of the experience program is the ability to have attendees double as huge focus groups. In fact, other institutions have held events specifically to gather consumer input.

At another conference session, Meredith Verdone, Chief Marketing Officer at Bank of America, gave an example of an event-based approach that she has been trying. BofA invited 50 Millennials to a camp in Pennsylvania. There the bank engaged them in discussions about personal finance.

“They had a lot of fun sharing all that they are doing, such as financial hacks,” said Verdone. “This is an example of recognizing a group of consumers and how they behave.” The bank later posted a report, heavy on pictures and links to BofA online money advice, on BuzzFeed to share the Millennials’ ideas more broadly.

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