Maria Bartiromo and the Co-Branding of CNBC and Citigroup

By Pam Martens:  February 2, 2007

Behind the recent media brouhaha over CNBC news anchor, Maria Bartiromo, accepting international flights on Citigroup’s corporate jet along with speaking engagements in front of Citigroup clients, resides a far more sinister nexus between big business and big media: co-branding.

Co-branding is the combining of multiple brand names and/or corporate logos on products, services, press releases, web sites, etc. When competently done, there will be marketing synergies. When incompetently done, let’s say where a scandal-plagued global financial institution tries to varnish its image by co-branding with the very business press that investigates and reports on it, a marketing fiasco is in the making along with a tainted free press.

When CNBC issued its press release for its 2006 European Business Leaders Awards (EBLA), it noted that the awards were “sponsored by Citigroup Private Banking and Aviva.” It included a photo from the 2005 award event, captioned as follows: “Lakshmi Mittal receives the 2005 award for entrepreneur of the year from Todd Thomson [Citigroup] flanked by CNBC presenters Simon Hobbs and Maria Bartiromo.

When Citigroup issued its press release for the 2005 European Business Leaders Awards, it read: “Together with our partners [emphasis added] at CNBC Europe and The Wall Street Journal Europe, we salute the risks taken by each of the nominees, and the success they have achieved Mick Buckley, president & CEO, CNBC Europe said: ‘We’re delighted that Citigroup Private Bank is supporting the European Business Leaders Awards. We have created these awards to recognize and encourage excellence and integrity in business leadership.’ On behalf of The Wall Street Journal Europe, editor and associate publisher, Frederick Kempe, said, ‘Leadership is vitally important in driving the economies of Europe forward. The CEOs on the short list are executives who have built and sustain world-class businesses at a time when competition and conditions are fierce. This evening is a fitting tribute to them and we’re delighted to have Citigroup’s participation in such a high caliber event.’”

At the end of the press release, Citigroup lists long laudatory bios for its own company, CNBC Europe and The Wall Street Journal Europe.

While EBLA is the co-branding strategy for Europe, ABLA (Asia Business Leader Awards) is the sister marketing strategy for Asia. Initiated in 2001, Citigroup’s logo and laudatory history have been pumped out on press releases sharing the logo and bio of CNBC for the past six years. At the end of the October 26, 2006 press release issued by CNBC for ABLA, it says: “CNBC is 100% owned and managed by NBC Universal, which is the broadcasting unit of GE, the ‘World’s Most Admired’ company in Fortune magazine’s annual poll of executives (March 2006). 5th Asia Business Leader Awards is presented by The Citigroup Private Bank. The Citigroup Private Bank is one of the largest private banking businesses in the world, provides personalized wealth management services for clients through 126 offices in 90 cities in 37 countries.”

Despite the fact that CNBC is a news organization and is well aware that the Citigroup Private Bank was kicked out of Japan for money laundering and other fraudulent activity, that Citigroup has been charged with racketeering, market manipulation, fraudulent research, rigging the European bond market, and aiding and abetting in the collapse of Enron and WorldCom, there is no mention of that on its co-branding press release.

On September 14, 2006, Citigroup issued another awards-related press release. This time, it was the honoree of a CNBC gala event in India: “In a glittering ceremony attended by the who’s who of the country’s financial community, Citibank was awarded the CNBC-TV18 Financial Advisor Award for Best Performing Bank.”

While this international co-branding effort was overt, something more covert was happening here at home. Here’s a quick check of the CNBC news content for the period December 29, 2006 to January 5, 2007. The following Citigroup personnel appeared on the news network to advance Citigroup’s position on everything from stocks to global warming: Tobias Levkovich (Citigroup’s top 10 stock picks); Kimberly Greenberger (Citigroup’s analyst for retail store data); Lan Xue (Citigroup is bullish on Chinese stocks); Steven Saywell (Citigroup doesn’t think you should sell the U.S. dollar); Hans Goetti (loss of investor confidence roils Thailand); Charles Boorady (how Citigroup thinks healthcare reform will affect HMO stocks). Week after week, the proliferation of Citigroup guests would suggest that Citigroup is not just one of CNBC’s largest advertisers but a content provider as well.

The co-branding effort is so engrained between CNBC and Citigroup that the Wall Street Journal reported that Charles McLean was the spokesperson for both CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo and Todd Thomson, the Citigroup exec ostensibly ousted for getting too cozy with the reporter. What the Journal did not reveal is that Mr. McLean works for The Dilenschneider Group, the public relations firm that specializes in crisis management.

Mainstream media has been buzzing about CNBC’s failure to report on what has become a major news story. Other reporters have questioned why CNBC has so fiercely defended Maria Bartiromo’s conduct with Citigroup. The answer is that neither CNBC nor Citigroup want the first class cabin’s curtain pulled back on their co-branding scheme, the reason Ms. Bartiromo was on the Citigroup corporate jet.

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