Citi Awakes From Slumber

I am not a licensed financial advisor, so take no stock advice from me. However, if I were, I would put a strong buy on Citi. The bank’s new CEO, Vikram Pandit, has moved to change a corporate culture that formerly welcomed ideas only from the current holders of power. In one bold, decisive move he has announced that good ideas can come from the past as well as the present. How? By bringing back the timeless “Citi never sleeps” tagline.

This single act has telegraphed to Citi’s 300,000-plus employees that there is no longer any time or patience for office politics in the bank’s future and its positioning in the global marketplace. The important thing now is who has or had the best ideas that can be employed to turn the company around as quickly as possible.

Today’s senior management frequently overlooks the importance of the few words chosen to serve as the core of their company’s brand promise. Far too often familiar, compelling and distinctive taglines that should never change are flung aside for one of two reasons:

1. A new senior team takes the helm and all highly visible reminders of the previous administration are completely and thoroughly erased. (Stalin employed similar but somewhat harsher measures when changing his inner circle.)

2. A new chief marketing officer appears on the scene and his or her first inclination is to leave a permanent imprint. What better way than to update the tagline (brand promise) to something associated with the new exec’s supposed brilliance? The implication: “Now the rest of senior management will understand why I am being paid a fat salary and grabbing stock options they otherwise would have for themselves.”

There are countless examples of such behavior, and over recent years the pace of throwing away classic taglines has accelerated.

In many ways this is the single biggest mistake being made in business today. At a time of constant economic upheaval, the one thing consumers really want is to rely on brands they have come to know and love. What marketers seem brain dead to is that consumers don’t want to try and remember ever-changing brand promises. Moreover, replacing classic taglines with ho-hum verbiage works in reverse: The consumer ignores the new line and the one after that and so on.

Management gets tired of seeing the same tagline because it is always around. But potential consumers only search their memory banks when they need a product or service in a particular category. A company’s best chance of making a sale is top-of-mind awareness that results in recall of the brand promise. The longer the tagline has gone unchanged the better its chances.

Nine times out of ten, category leaders have stuck for decades with a winning tagline. BMW has “The ultimate driving machine,” Nike says “Just do it,” Allstate promises “You’re in good hands,” and John Deere states “Nothing runs like a Deere.” Smaller companies with commanding brand dominance also keep their best lines forever: De Beers launched “A diamond is forever” in 1948.

Back to Citi. They fell into the “out with the old” approach when co-CEO John Reed was sent packing about a year after the merger of Travelers and Citibank in 1998. Out went Reed, out went the Citibank tagline that defined and distinguished it as the most far-reaching financial firm of all time. “Citi never sleeps” said it all. Present in more than 100 countries, Citi is always working somewhere on your behalf. It is vibrant, global, 24/7, like New York, London, Hong Kong and Shanghai fused into one high-energy consumer solution.

How could you top a line like “Citi never sleeps”? Simple. You can’t. Citi tried mightily to create a new tagline. It was an expensive and counterproductive combination of endless brand committee meetings over many months, followed by focus groups in cities far and wide that in the end amounted to nothing.

During the post-Reed decade Citi paid millions of dollars to consultants, ad agencies and design firms and spent billions trying to get traction with three attempts: “Where money lives,” “Live richly” and, most recently, “Let’s get it done.” Ironically, in a few remote outposts within the Citi empire, local management never stopped using “Citi never sleeps.” They thought when the edict went out to discontinue its use that surely headquarters would see the folly of its ways and change back in some reasonable period of time. Perhaps 10 years is reasonable when you match it against what most companies do in similar situations: never ever admit they made a mistake.

The list of these companies includes some of the greatest brands of all time: Coke, Pepsi, GE, American Express, General Motors, Ford, Exxon, Federal Express, McDonald’s and the U. S. Army. The last is a case in point. For two decades up to 2001, the Army employed the upbeat and universally known “Be all you can be” tagline. Then, right after 9/11, in one of the strangest marketing decisions of all time, it launched a new recruiting campaign with the tagline “Army of one.”

What this line was supposed to mean is still a mystery to many senior military officers, active duty and retired. Suffice it to say that the literal translation of enlisting and then flying over to fight in Iraq by one’s self is not exactly the recruiting motto I would want to sell to the youth of America.Eventually even the Pentagon seemed to agree and, in 2006, changed to the current “Army strong.” Although it’s better, probably any new tagline picked randomly could have improved upon “Army of one.”

One branch of the military understands that companies should never change a great tagline. For over 50 years the Marine Corps has made its core promise crystal clear with “The few. The proud. The Marines.”

Citi and others broke all the rules of crafting a powerful tagline capable of engaging employees and potential customers. Marketing professionals refuse to admit it, but every brilliant tagline ever created was the inspiration of an individual writer who put just the right words together, often as an outside observer divorced from the “focus group till we exhaust every angle approach” that regularly produces generalities or supposed wordplay that doesn’t play at all.

A gifted copywriter, Bob Wilvers, created “Citi never sleeps” when he worked at the Wells Rich Greene agency in the early 1970s. Ironically, Wilvers died in 1998, just as his classic tagline was being shown the door by Citi management.

And just like it takes a great writer to pen a great tagline, it takes a great CEO to recognize that “not invented here” does not mean it isn’t brilliant. Any CEO that has the insight and force of personality to bring back one of the best taglines ever created, like Vikram Pandit has done, also has the character and the clarity to bring back the Citi franchise to its rightful place in the world.

Steve Cone is the CMO at Epsilon and the author of Powerlines: Words That Sell Brands, Grip Fans and Sometimes Change History.