Citicorp is trying to change its personality.
Since last year, the bank has hired several top executives from outside the industry. One from a tobacco company and another from a food company have taken on the task of invigorating the Citibank brand-its meaning to retail customers-and they are starting to make their mark.
Last week Citicorp shocked Madison Avenue by announcing it would consolidate all of its marketing and advertising business with New York- based Young & Rubicam Inc. The banking company dropped three agencies it had been working with for almost two decades.
Brian Ruder, an executive vice president hired from H.J. Heinz Co. in March, said in an interview that the move signals progress in a three-year effort to build a stronger brand image.
"We are taking stock in who and what we are," said Mr. Ruder. "We are going to complete the definition of the Citibank persona. Citibank is a modern, happening thing."
Mr. Ruder leads the day-to-day effort to build a new brand image, reporting to William I. Campbell, the executive vice president in charge of global consumer banking. Mr. Campbell was hired last year after he had left his job as chairman and president of Philip Morris USA.
Citicorp executives said the decision to rely on a single advertising agency would help it create "one bank, one brand, one voice."
Consultants agree that the consolidation was a useful first step.
"You lose a certain amount of creative input, but with one agency you can manage external communications with more consistency," said Connecticut-based consultant Richard H. Evans, who formerly worked for General Foods, Chase Manhattan Corp., and Citicorp.
The creation of a well-defined, consistent brand image has become an increasingly important goal for Citicorp chairman John S. Reed, who said last week that "everything we do will be with the intent of building a branded identity that promises a unique experience-and delivering on the promise."
But marketing experts said Citicorp, the second-largest U.S. bank, with offices in 56 countries, has a struggle ahead.
"Banking can't be nicely packaged and defined," said Jonathan Bell, vice president of Interbrand-Schechter, a New York-based corporate identity consulting firm.
Indeed, Citicorp's branding campaign is only a beginning, said Mr. Ruder. Consumer banking products and services are going to be standardized globally. Technology supporting those operations is already in the process of being consolidated.
Chairman Reed "has set the tone," said Mr. Ruder. "He is ultimately the father of the brand personality. Our challenge from him is to create the products and services that bring the personality to life."
Mr. Ruder said he also sees an opportunity to change the way the public thinks about banking in general.
"People are very wary of big banks," he said. "We have a big opportunity to change that perception."
Until recently Citibank conveyed messages that varied country to country. The retail branches in more than 40 countries didn't even have the same color scheme until two years ago, Jerry Rao, director of global electronic cards in Citibank's advanced development group, said at a recent Financial Services Technology Consortium meeting in Toronto.
Mr. Rao said branding will become increasingly critical as business moves internationally and into "virtual space," and Citibank is prepared.
Citibank is generally perceived abroad as catering to upscale individuals, while in the United States its image is more mass market, said consultants. And its famous slogan, "The Citi Never Sleeps," may not work in remote villages in Nepal, for example, Mr. Bell said.
The branding campaign will take off in full force within six months, said Mr. Ruder. No decision has been made as to whether the bank will hire a celebrity spokesman or spokeswoman.
Observers said, however, that image won't be everything. "Making the promise is one thing," said Mr. Evans. "The promise is hollow if the bank doesn't live up to it."