I'm not usually quick to praise large banks. But I have to give credit where credit is due -- Citibike is the perfect marketing program and especially notable for a company that has taken a number of hits to its image in recent years.
While most companies are tripping over themselves to deliver meaningless offline and online impressions that impress nobody, Citi has linked its name and brand with a service that directly benefits both New Yorkers and visitors to New York City.
It's hard to go anywhere in downtown / midtown Manhattan without seeing the elegant docking stations and cyclists riding the shiny new bikes with prominent Citi logos prominently yet tastefully displayed from every angle. This ubiquity throughout Manhattan would be hard to achieve with any traditional media -- and besides does anyone really pay attention to ads on bus shelters and taxicab roofs?
Judging from the 50,000 memberships, 650,000 rides and 1.5 million miles traveled in just over a month since the program launched, the program is obviously fulfilling a previously unmet need for New Yorkers. Plus, the program has a positive image association for Citibank with fitness, especially among influential millennials. And the program also has great public affairs benefits, as the sponsorship is directly helping a pet project of Mayor Bloomberg. (It's surely no coincidence that Citi's Executive Vice President of Public Affairs, Ed Skyler, previously served as Bloomberg's Deputy Mayor of Operations and had also served as the Mayor's Press Secretary and Communications Director.)
Of course no innovative marketing program is without risk. The program (and Citi as its sponsor) have received plenty of criticism for launch delays, technical glitches and complaints about the docking stations taking up precious street parking. (Why New York City gives up so much real estate for free or under-market parking for private cars is a topic for another post.) Two weeks after the program launched, the New York Times ran an article "2 Weeks In, Bike-Share Program Is Hitting Snags." But with risk comes reward. As Citi's Skyler told New York Magazine, "You get very few opportunities to cut through the noise and make an impression in the fabric of a city like New York, which is our hometown."
Now that the program has launched, there are many ways that Citi could further leverage the program to reinforce and further strengthen the community benefits of the program. It is great that Citibike offers discounted memberships to NYCHA residents. Some of the many other ways Citi could further leverage the sponsorship would be to organize Meetups to bring together loyal Citibike fans, sponsor special bike rides for Citibike members, and provide special offers for Citi customers to get free / discounted memberships.
I also hope that more companies learn from Citi's example and do similar community marketing programs. Some of many ideas include partnerships with schools, civic tech initiatives (such as Code for America), and developing innovative programs in conjunction with other essential city services such as the NYC Transit / MTA. As Citibike is showing, working to benefit the community can be a more effective form of marketing and brand-building than traditional advertising or sponsorships.
Oh, by the way, I still call it Shea.
I have no relationship, professional or otherwise, with Citibank and though I am an active cyclist I am not a Citibike member, as Citibike is not (yet) available in my neighborhood.