Citi Kicks It Into Top Gear

By Carrie Cummings Posted on Oct 03, 2013

The long-standing culture war between cyclists and the rest of New York City reached its tipping point this past May when Citi drew a line in the sand and emerged as the "Chief Ambassador" for riders citywide.  
"Citi is about creating progress," says Rob Feakins, CCO and President at Publicis Kaplan Thaler, the agency responsible for Citi Bike's promotion and app.
It's no surprise that Citi would take on a bike-sharing project of this magnitude which aims to put 10,000 blue bicycles on the street of New York City by the spring. For years, they have been striving to make New York City a better place to live through similar initiatives.
In 2009, Citi opened Citi Field, a new home for the New York Mets that replaced the outdated Shea Stadium. But perhaps the pre-bike Citi initiative that is the most New York is Citi Pond. The Bryant Park skating rink is a somewhat undiscovered jewel of New York, often overshadowed by the glitzy, highly publicized Rockefeller Center rink.
But that wasn't enough for Citi. After all, as Feakins explains, "This is a New York City bank. They're born and bred here and they want to bring progress to the city and the world. "
Enter Citi Bike. The blue, Citi logo'd, 45-pound behemoths 5,900 of them, to be exact, locked into 330 bike racks around Manhattan and Brooklyn were unveiled to waves of media skepticism and public backlash.
"All of the false starts of the program were very public," says Jim Kotulka, executive creative director at Publicis Kaplan Thaler.
But, surprisingly, the backlash settled quickly and the public embraced the program. That media skepticism has turned to fanfare with the New York press more likely to run a photo of Leonardo DiCaprio cruising through the West Village on a bike than to run an article criticizing Citi or the program. In short, the bike share is a wild success.
"We've gone to the moon and back over 15 times, burned 280 million calories. We've gone around the world more than 880 times," says Feakins. "We're already at over seven million miles. It is the most successful ridership program of any city ever."
Publicis Kaplan Thaler's team tailored the branding and design to a bank-wary audience.  While they didn't design the bike itself or the docking stations, they had their hand in every other aspect of its look and implementation. They also designed the app that makes it easier to find available bikes, empty docking stations, best routes and things to do along the way.
Though the app has numerous bells and whistles that enhance the riding experience (I'm looking at you, New York Times Scoop integration), its purpose is singular: "The primary objective of the app is for people to find out where they're going and to get them there as quickly as possible," says Kotulka.
It doesn't hurt that the app is beautifully designed, with a simple, straightforward user interface and simple graphics that let riders know how full a docking station is. The app also uses Google Maps to provide riders with the most directand legalroute to their destination.
"Google Maps just worked for us for a number of reasons, namely their New York City maps and bike lane data are accurate and they work seamlessly on both iOS & Android," Kotulka adds. 
Citi took a big risk with the bike-share program—it's public knowledge that they've agreed to spend over 40-million dollars for the program and, in return, they have improved their brand's perception and reputation among their core demographic: New Yorkers.
"Even the slogan drives that point home: 'Unlock a bike. Unlock New York.' It's about exploring New York," says Kotulka.
"I think brands oftentimes do things that simply improve utility and experience, which is important. And then they'll do big branding efforts. It's incredibly hard sometimes to both simultaneously. That's what is so unique about Citi Bike. It offers both an amazing experience and utility while also offering a massive branding effort." says Feakins.
Publicis Kaplan Thaler and Citi have proved that improvement on that level isn't impossible.
The team at Publicis feels confident they've got a happy client on their hands: "I think they're blown away, obviously they've changed something important in New York City transportation. When you do something like that it's scary, but I think it's been embraced by the city," says Kotulka.
But forget the metrics, clients, creative team and money. None of that would even be possible with the glaringly obvious fact that Feakins reiterates: "Everyone has more fun when they're riding a bike."


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