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Citi Seeks New Customers with Revamped Card Reward Program

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For Citigroup's Ralph Andretta, attending concerts is serious business.

Andretta is in charge of revitalizing the bank's Private Pass, a longstanding rewards program that organizes special events and tickets for Citigroup (NYSE:C) credit and debit card customers. The bank ramped up its marketing for the program this fall, blanketing television channels with a near-ubiquitous commercial and this month organizing a customers-only Alicia Keys concert at New York City's Lincoln Center.

For Citigroup, which is overhauling its credit card program after the financial crisis, Private Pass is an attempt to stand out in the increasingly competitive field of card issuers.

The bank started the program years ago with an emphasis on concerts, but has ramped it up in recent months, adding events related to sports and food and family activities; Citigroup says it has 10,000 Private Pass events planned for 2012, up 23% from last year.

Now Andretta is hoping that this expansion will help Citigroup attract and retain a wider range of creditworthy customers.

"It's total access. It's not just on a particular card or on a particular color card, and the price points are reflective of that," says Andretta, the head of co-brand and loyalty for Citi Cards.

Unlike rivals American Express (AXP) and JPMorgan Chase (JPM), which are increasingly vying for the most affluent borrowers, Citigroup is trying to appeal to a broader customer base while building up the rewards programs and card products that can attract high-spending customers.

Andretta points out that Private Pass offers some free events, such as movie screenings and museum tickets, and some $20 concert tickets, although other events can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars.

"We believe this is a way to … engender loyalty, because loyalty drives engagement" and increased spending on Citi cards, Andretta said in an interview earlier this month. He declined to give specific results, but said that Citigroup has seen "good post-event" spending levels from customers who attend Private Pass events.

Andretta is something of a specialist in credit card customer loyalty. A former American Express executive, he also previously ran global affinity cards for Bank of America (BAC). Last year, Citi Cards head and fellow American Express alum Jud Linville hired Andretta to run a new loyalty and products team.

Now that the worst losses from the financial crisis are behind Citigroup, Linville has been trying to revamp the bank's credit cards unit. This year Andretta presided over the launch of a new Hilton rewards card meant to appeal to wealthy, frequent travelers.

"Citi's a storied franchise. Through the crisis I think some of those assets atrophied a little bit, so it's almost like an archeological dig," Andretta said this month. "A lot of opportunity exists."

Andretta spoke with American Banker days before Citigroup's board abruptly replaced chief executive Vikram Pandit with Michael Corbat. When asked if the leadership change would affect the bank's current cards strategy, a Citi spokeswoman referred to Corbat's comments at the time, promising no big change in overall strategy.

Citigroup is touting the Private Pass program at its ATMs, in customers' account statements, in an emailed newsletter and on social media. But it has undoubtedly gotten the most attention — including some criticism — for its television commercial, which shows a woman breaking up with her boyfriend because he is "boring." The man recuperates by attending various Private Pass events, including a cooking class with celebrity chef Giada De Laurentiis and an Alicia Keys concert.

The commercial has garnered mixed reactions on Twitter, and a post on the website The Awl drew some unflattering comparisons between the main character and men who pay for companionship. Andretta said he had not seen those criticisms.

"That's pretty funny," he said, adding that The Awl's comparison was "a long stretch."

"The campaign is geared to say, 'You have these products from Citi and there are so many things you can do from Citi, you can fill your day or your week," he said.

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