How Citi Bikes won back New Yorkers' goodwill

New York Citi Bikes: 'the battle to win back New York'. Bike-sharing schemes are expanding worldwide. But how effective are they for their sponsors?

Why should you care about it?
With an estimated 600 bike-sharing schemes worldwide, the commercial case for brands to sponsor this popular, green and relatively affordable transport mode seems clear-cut.

But there is a surprising dearth of evidence about how well these schemes deliver for sponsors.

The award-winning launch campaign created by Publicis Kaplan Thaler for Citi’s sponsorship of New York’s bike scheme is, therefore rare, and offers insights for any brand manager wanting to test the tyres on this type of marketing investment.

What did the brand do?
Citi’s brand was badly hit by the 2008-9 banking crisis and sceptics questioned whether it would try to use its sponsor­ship to "buy" back New Yorkers’ goodwill.

Interviews with New York’s cyclists uncovered an insight that set the tone for the brand’s approach: the city looked different when seen from a bike. 

The resulting campaign idea, ‘When you unlock a bike, you unlock New York’, consequently downplayed the brand in favour of positioning the bikes as a new way to experience New York’s streets and neighbourhoods.

With this in mind, the target audience became anyone who wanted to know more about the city, rather than being restricted to keen cyclists or urban commuters.

Creative content directed users to Citi Bike’s website and app, putting the emphasis on information and utility, rather than any attempt to portray ‘typical’ bike users or occasions. Outdoor media, bought close to bike stations, carried references to nearby landmarks.

Data about bikes and bike stations was made freely available and customised by the public. Artists created visualisations of bike use. Food bloggers developed dining itineraries based on bike routes and estate agents incorporated station locations into their marketing.

The brand’s name helped: the scheme could be called ‘Citi Bike’ without it seeming a clumsy attempt at branding. 

Citi could also credibly point to its history as ‘New York’s original bank’ to argue that its values were fundamentally aligned with the service’s objectives of improving urban infrastructure and the population’s daily experience of the city.

New Yorkers were won over by Citi’s bike sponsorship

New Yorkers were won over by Citi’s bike sponsorship

How well did it work?
After three months, 83% of respondents identified Citi as the scheme sponsor, versus a target of 40% within a year.

50,000 annual memberships were sold, compared with a 6,000 target.

Despite some negative publicity about the scheme’s operating company, Citi’s brand scores for consideration, preference and impression reached their highest levels since 2008.

Against a backdrop of declines in other US markets, Citi’s New York account-openings and card acquisitions rose by, respectively, 7.1% and 10.4% year on year between May and July 2013.

What else do we want to know?
Good though this case is, there is always more to learn. IPA Effectiveness Awards cases typically report longer-term results, and are able to discount other potential causes of success, such as seasonality.

That would be useful here, given that late spring is an attractive time to take up cycling. 

It is not unreasonable to wonder, too, whether the post-launch boost in Citi’s brand health and commercial trading would plateau, if not fall back, once the bikes were no longer a novelty.

Citi initially invested $41m over six years in the sponsor­ship, in addition to the $5m it spent on paid media for the launch, and later increased its spend on the tie-up. What we would really like to know is the payback on Citi’s budget if you modelled more modest benefits over the full duration of the sponsorship.

All of this is a way of saying that the ‘Battle to win back New York’ case sheds new light on the global phenomenon of bike scheme sponsorships, but we would like to see it entered into the IPA Effectiveness Awards to continue this particular bike ride of discovery.

Learnings unpacked

  • Make it about the bike, not the brand
  • Go for broad reach, rather than micro-targeting
  • To build public involvement, consider making your data public
  • Where relevant, localise messages to neighbourhood or street level

Carlos Grande (carlos@ipa.co.uk) is the effectiveness editor of the IPA, formerly of the Financial Times and Warc

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