There’s an ignoble history of dodgy ‘brands and music’ sessions at industry conferences: long on ‘it’s not just about a big cheque’ and ‘it’s all about authenticity’ babble, but rather shorter on genuine insight.

Happily, Citi’s global consumer CMO Jennifer Breithaupt swerved the platitudes in her keynote at the Midem conference in Cannes today, instead offering views on the intersection between brands, music and technology, as seen through her company’s partnerships. She was interviewed by Bill Werde, director of the Bandier Program at Syracuse University.

How should music companies and artists approach Citi? “I would say the biggest thing that I hear often is ‘we don’t know how to get through the door and get to the right people at Citi’. That’s definitely something we’re working on, to have more of a pipeline for people to present opportunities,” she said.

Werde asked about an initiative called Citi Welcome What’s Next, which tried to make a stronger identify for Citi’s global consumer brand. “It really came from a mantra we came up with: 14 words that took three months to come up with: ‘We want to be a modern bank that makes people feel good and optimistic about what’s next’,” she said.

The campaign is also about getting people to spend less time using their phones – Citi’s apps included – rather than more “The whole world is looking down now. Everybody is missing these [special] moments… We didn’t want to design our apps and features to make people look down and spend a lot of time on it,” she said.

“You get sucked into it, it’s really becoming a problem for children especially. So we’re trying to send a message out to the world,” said Breithaupt. “It’s been wildly successful, and it’s something we’re excited about.”

The conversation moved on to actual music/brand deals. How has it changed working with the music industry over the past 10 years for a big brand?

“It’s gotten a lot easier for Citi. When we started doing all this music stuff 10 or 11 years ago, Citi wasn’t doing anything with music, so to educate the artist community that Citi could help them achieve what they wanted to achieve… that took a long time to build that up. And now we’ll do about 6,500 music events this year, we work with over 1,500 artists, and we sell a ton of stuff… We’re a great partner for an artist or band, because we can help them whatever the initiative is,” she said.

Werde raised the ‘is it just about a big cheque?’ question, and Breithaupt tackled it head-on. “Certainly people still come and want a cheque. There’s certain artists and bands and managers who that’s the thing they care most about. But more, we’re getting people coming to us and saying ‘we wanna do what that person did’ – people are getting more creative, they understand the value we can offer. Our customers are their fans, and we have that common interest to make sure they’re having the best experience, and that we’re enhancing it,” she said.

“It’s not always about the cheque. It happens, there’s certain people that require payment, but there’s others who are getting really creative about how we can partner together… And those people end up getting bigger cheques because we’ll put more marketing behind it, we’ll put more media behind it. Those people are playing the longer game!”

Breithaupt also talked about how Citi is creating exclusive experiences around music, where for example a Citi card has to be used to get something music-related – ticket pre-sales for example. “You create an additional utility: a card isn’t just about making a purchase, it actually unlocks access to something,” she said.

Has a negotiation with an artist ever gone horribly wrong? “Certainly there can be some poor behaviour over the years, you see it once in a while. I don’t always think it’s necessarily the artist. I think it’s the people around the artist. I’m very clear with artists and bands around that: be careful who represents you… We’ll say ‘I don’t really want to work with that person again’,” she said.

Examples? “Not being open to negotiating and viewing it as a partnership: just ‘my way or the highway on everything’. Not delivering on what’s in a contract is a big thing: that can only happen once – we do not work with that person again,” she said. “I think making sure if you’re an artist or a band, having the right representation around you [is important]. There are some really lovely people, and we go out of our way to work with them, because they show up on time and work in the right way.”

Werde asked about how Breithaupt keeps up with emerging technologies, and how Citi wants to use them in its various campaigns and services. “Right now we’re testing some AI technology called Vogon which allows us to create thousands of iterations of a single ad unit, which lets us serve that up where it’s contextually relevant,” she said. “And beyond that we’re continuing our efforts around virtual reality, and not just in the music space, where we’ve done a lot.”

Is VR ready to be a mass-market platform for marketing? “It’s not ready, but there’s some concepts and nuggets behind there, that if we can figure that out, it’s got a lot of utility,” said Breithaupt. “We’ve done a lot in the music space, and it’ still a little bit clunky, and the experience is just not there. It really doesn’t replicate standing in an audience with a lot of other fans watching a live show… It’s a technology to stay with… but we haven’t found a wow yet.”

Citi is also working with some artists on iterations of the Vogon technology to customise thousands of outgoing messages on behalf of music. “We’re also looking at music festivals in the same way,” she said. Talking of which: is Citi paying more attention to music festivals in terms of brand activity?

“There certainly are a lot of festivals now! The big, big festivals in Europe and the US, they sell out before their lineup’s even announced, and I think that will continue. It’s become a cultural thing, a destination. The ones that are struggling are some of the smaller startup festivals: they want to be one of the big boys, but people can only go to so many festivals,” she said.

“We’re still partnered with several festivals in the US, and they still are a great opportunity for us: the amplification of how many people you can reach in a day with your brand message is really important.”

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