Citi's announcement that it'll fire 52,000 people begs a basic question: what will it do to its brand?
No, I don't mean the impact of the bad news. Every business other than Wal-Mart and your local pawnshop seems to be in trouble these days. I doubt that anybody will switch their checking account because their emotional attachment to Citi has been damaged by the bad news.
However, there may well be customer defections based on what Citi has chosen to stop doing.
That's 52,000 (and 17,000 already dismissed this year) less to do the account transfers, count the cash, or do whatever else banking industry personnel are supposed to do. Approximately 1/10th fewer people will work for Citi when this blood-letting is over.
So what will it do differently?
I mean, that's the real question about the brand, isn't it? Its experts can label the moves however they choose, and I bet there's more than one glossy, highly creative ad campaign somewhere in its near future. The nonsense they've been running this year can only run so far before somebody looks up and notices that Citi's brand has very little to do with what it says about itself (or fantasizes about its customers in a Joe the Plumber sort of lifestyle marketing way). Their answer will be to run different nonsense, I'm sure.
So the real impacts on the company's brand won't come from the marketing department. Customer relationships with Citi will change. 52,000 fewer employees mean 104,000 fewer hands to answer phones, click computer buttons, or whatever. So I wonder what new fees will get charged, or services reconfigured to be "customer-directed" (a great code word for "outsourcing work to your clients")? What services or insights will simply disappear entirely?
I read that the company will "jettison" some companies that aren't "core to its strategy," whatever that strategy might be...but the rest, well, for all we know, the company is going to try to keep on doing the same things it does now. Only with far fewer people.
However it plays out, it'll be these activities -- or the lack thereof -- that'll impact its brand far more than any narrative coming out of its communications department, or from its agencies. So it's these changes that will define Citi's branding going forward. Not its Wall Street valuation (its stock price tanked today), nor its ranking on any branding agency favorites list.
If it were really forward-looking, Citi would define and express these changes, and make them the substance of its outbound marketing.
Tell people what'll change, so they're not disappointed or surprised. Promise them the good things that'll happen, presuming there are any.
We wonder why corporations rank so low on matters of authenticity and trustworthiness. I think it has something to do with making utterly incomprehensible announcements (and business decisions) like this one.
We customers aren't totally crazy, are we? We know that a company can't fire a tenth of its work force and continue on with business as usual. Things will change, and they most likely won't be good for us. But Citi isn't telling us what, who, or when.
I suspect we'll get to discover those answers on our own. And in doing so, we'll define the Citi brand.