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Brand Battles: Capital One vs. Citibank

Brand Battles: Capital One vs. Citibank

There’s more magic to banking than what’s in your wallet.

Summary: Two brands face off, measured across brand impact determinants and evaluated by their performance data in our latest study The 360° Advantage: How Whole Brands Dominate.

The winning whole brand in the banking and finance category started out as a regional bank with an aggressive credit card strategy. Its contrast with its competitor Citi has clues to how a brand with a sharp focus can manage to dominate across the board. And, in a category known as a commodity, they use design and reach to break into the top tier.


“What’s in your wallet?” Even if it’s not Capital One, you know who’s asking.  

Though a fraction in size of any of the “Big Four” megabanks, Capital One wins the financial services category with a Whole Brand Index (WBI) score of 68. In looking at how they perform, especially compared to global powerhouses like Citi and Chase, we can detect the whole brand traits that are essential for success. 

With a deposit and asset base that’s about one-fourth that of Citi, Capital One wins on several key external performance metrics over Citi. Their past-12-month usage is 42% versus Citi’s 30%. They’re used as the preferred brand by 15% versus 9%, and they have a net “on-the-rise” rating of 36% versus Citi’s 10%.  

The scatter plot graph below puts their dominance into full context:


They edge Chase in their WBI score 68 to 66. Even though Capital One has just one-seventh the assets of Chase, they barely trail them in Total Performance Score (TPS). Cap One far eclipses Citi on both scores—68 to 58 in WBI and 125 to 58 in TPS. 

What’s behind this? Capital One started out as a regional bank, based in Richmond, Virginia, known for an aggressive credit card program—but nowhere close to the service reach of a global giant. Starting in the 1980s, Citi built a far-reaching retail banking empire of its own, also with a strong credit card foundation.  

The Great Recession of 2008-09 wreaked havoc on many legendary financial brand names—Merrill Lynch, Bear Stearns, Lehman to name a few. The banking giants who survived—Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and Citi—have seen varying fortunes since the crisis. Citi was especially hard hit—receiving the largest amount of bailout money from federal resources--$476 billion. Capital One’s bailout: $3.5 billion

Citi had a long recovery. Chase, for example, raced past them on many fronts. But Citi’s weakness coming out of the crisis made mid-range competitors like Capital One a more serious threat. 

This shows up in the components that make up the WBI. Capital One outperforms Citi on all 10 of the key metrics that comprise that score—but they are especially strong in two: relevance of messaging and visibility of advertising. While their mean WBI score is 10 points higher than Citi’s, on these two factors their margins are 21 points and 13 points respectively. 

Their full-throated investment in high-visibility media, drilling in messages about high rewards percentages, has turned Capital One into a whole brand that—despite its smaller asset base—makes it more mentally “available” to consumers to Citi.  

On the two design system components of the WBI—being “easy to find” and “simplicity of usage”—they outscore Citi by 8 points. That’s a significant feat for a much smaller bank going up against a global giant.

“Challenger” brands can take lessons from Capital One:

  • Be sure to have a focused message that matters to people. 
  • Overinvest in spreading it. 
  • Make it easy for people to find you and do business with you. 

Most important: act like a whole brand, especially when a big competitor gives up critical ground to you—as Citi clearly has against Capital One. 

Read more about “The 360°Advantage: How Whole Brands Dominate,” at wholebrandproject.com.


Unless otherwise stated, Barkley does not have a business relationship with the brands mentioned in this article. All Barkley clients are clearly noted throughout the Whole Brand Index and Whole Brand Project website.

Barkley US

Oct 28, 2020

filed under:
Brand Battles, Finance, Marketing, Modern Consumer, Whole Brands


Brand Battles, Marketing, Modern Consumer, Research, Retail, Whole Brands
Brand Battles, Healthcare, Marketing, Modern Consumer, Research, Whole Brands
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