Forget billboards and bus shelters. When it comes reaching the masses in New York, Citigroup is getting more bang for its buck sponsoring the city's popular bike-share program than it is through more traditional advertising.

Citi Bike has generated massive exposure for the banking giant and has proven to be a far better payoff than billboard space or ads in newspapers and magazines, marketing experts say. Citi executives also credit the sponsorship for helping repair the company's image following the financial crisis, as riders, and even nonriders, have lauded Citi for helping provide a crucial public service at no cost to taxpayers.

"There are ways to interact with the consumer in the market that go way beyond the traditional media, which can start to create a change in how they think about the brand," says Christine DiLandro, Citi's director of media and integrated marketing. Citi Bike has helped "enable an improvement in trust."

The company has been so pleased with the results in New York that it is eyeing expansion in other cities. Next up is Miami, where Citi will take over sponsorship of the three-year-old bike-sharing program in November.

"We now have a lot of experience under our belts," DiLandro said at American Banker's Financial Services Marketing and Innovation Symposium in New York City in September, before the Miami sponsorship was announced.

The New York program is far from perfect, as operational problems like broken docks, empty bike racks and malfunctioning card readers have frustrated users. Alta Bicycle Share, which operates the 16-month-old Citi Bike program, has taken most of the blame for these problems, though it's possible that Citi, as the sponsor, could suffer a public relations hit if the problems linger.

The program, despite its popularity, also has serious financial problems. It was designed to run without public funds, but it has cost more than expected, and now city officials are looking for additional sponsors to help keep it afloat.

Still, as a pure marketing initiative, Citi Bike been a home run for the company, as ridership and media exposure have far exceeded expectations. Roughly 100,000 New Yorkers have bought annual memberships, 200,000 people have downloaded the app, and riders have taken some 13 million Citi Bike trips totaling more than 23 million miles. Local newspapers ran more than 1,100 articles on Citi Bike in its first three months and the program has received substantial national coverage, DiLandro says.

More important for the company has been the effect on public opinion. In polls of New Yorkers three months after the launch, Citi found improvements of 25% in brand preference, 41% in brand consideration and 17% in positive impressions of the company, Citi says.

Citi's brand also improved on a national level, according to BAV Consulting. Its "brand esteem," a metric created by the consultancy to assess overall brand health, rose by 5% in the two quarters after Citi Bike was introduced. There was also an increase in the number of people who associate the brand with attributes like progressivism and environmental consciousness, says BAV analyst Claire Repp.

Of course, judging from the return on investment for a single marketing campaign is notoriously difficult, especially for a company like Citi that advertises through multiple channels.

It is possible, though, to estimate the value of Citi Bike as outdoor advertising — and that estimate suggests that, even apart from the polling numbers and all the good press, Citi got a good deal.

Citi's five-year sponsorship of the program cost $41 million, or $8.2 million a year. To put that in perspective, Citi is paying $400 million — $20 million a year for 20 years — for naming rights to Citi Field, the New York Mets' baseball stadium. Citi spends around $2 billion a year on advertising and marketing worldwide.

And outdoor advertising in New York City is expensive. It can cost several million dollars a year to rent a single billboard in a commercial center.

There are now 5,400 bikes, each with five Citi logos, and 330 docking stations bearing the company's name spread throughout the most densely populated neighborhoods of New York. This lets the company cut down its outdoor advertising in the city, DiLandro says. She compared the docking kiosks to bus shelters, where it can be expensive to advertise. A bus shelter ad in Manhattan costs between $1,300 and $6,500 for four weeks, depending on the location, according to Blue Line Media, which sells the ad space.

Plus, the 5,400 bikes themselves function as rolling Citi advertisements. Quantifying the value of these is tough, but Jason Shen of the marketing-technology company Percolate took a stab at it using a metric called cost-per-mille, or CPM, that is widely used in the marketing field.

This metric gives the cost of each form of advertisement per 1,000 consumer impressions, or viewings of the ad. Costs typically range from around $2.50 for Internet banner ads to $6 for national magazines and as much as $35 for television advertising. Shen estimates that, if Citi's $41 million bought nothing more than the bicycles, it would still be at the relatively low CPM of $3.62.

Perhaps the clearest indicator that Citi Bike has been a worthwhile investment for the company was the decision by Citi officials to replicate the strategy in Florida.

Miami's bike-sharing program began in 2011 with 1,000 bikes and 100 stations, and was named DecoBike after the local company that runs it. Until now it has operated only in Miami Beach, but with Citi's sponsorship, it is being expanded to mainland Miami.

Roughly 750 bikes and 75 docking stations will be added in Miami, and the city's mayor said in October that if the program — to be re-branded as Citi Bike, but still run by DecoBike — is successful downtown it could expand into other neighborhoods. Citi's sponsorship agreement runs for five years. The company did not disclose the financial terms.

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