On flipping a page in the April 21st issue of The Economist I came across this year’s funniest April Fool’s joke. This ad has a timeline of a fictional 200 year history for Citi, taking credit for various innovations such as the Panama Canal and commercial jetliners.
As I read through it I was laughing out loud. Whoever did this ad had a keen sense of satire. And the text about how money isn’t all that matters to Citi makes a good punchline.
Then I realized it wasn’t an April Fool’s joke. The people who created this ad actually think people will believe it.
Let’s clear one thing up first. There is no such thing as “Citi.” There’s Citigroup, and a division called Citibank. The ad copyright says “Citigroup.” And if that’s what they’re talking about, I have bad news. Citigroup is a mere 13 years old.
Their banking division, of course, is older. And sure, you could draw a line back to a bank in New York that is 200 years old.
But you can’t draw a straight line. Citi is a poster child for a corporation created by mergers. Drawing its history back to a precursor organization is like if I claimed to be 200 years old because that’s how old my great-grandfather would have been this year.
Here’s a quick summary of their real history: After a series of bank mergers in the mid 20th century, the name “Citibank” was invented in the 70’s to describe the new conglomerate. A parent company named “Citicorp” was established, which was renamed to “Citigroup” in 1998 after they merged with Traveler’s Insurance. That merger didn’t work out and Traveler’s was later spun off. This same process of a corporate marriage and divorce was repeated with an investment company called Smith Barney.
Here in California, Citibank appeared on the west coast practically overnight a mere decade ago. They acquired a regional bank called California Federal (aka CalFed.) Itself the product of a series of corporate mergers, CalFed’s strategy of expansion through acquisition fit well with Citibank, but it makes the bank’s lineage all the more murky.
Look, if this ad was secretly placed by The Onion or something, let me just admit that you got me. I fell for your ruse. But if the folks behind it are just some marketing guys out there who think they’ve convinced people that Citi is 200 years old? The joke is on them.