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I wanted to find a company that used to advertise through the city’s billboards and the traditional mass marketing channels, but because of the constraints put upon them by São Paulo’s Clean City law had to find new and better ways. And what if that company was the one you least expected to innovate in an industry that during the financial crises had gotten a reputation of men in suits only thinking of money?

A bank! Yes, if a bank could lead the way, anybody should be able to do it too.

When pondering banks and their marketing schemes, I thought of this cautionary tale. In February 2012, Danske Bank, one of the biggest banks in Europe, decided to revamp its image. The bank commissioned an expensive TV commercial entitled „A New Normal Demands New Standards.“ The Hollywood quality ad featured grim scenes of police repression and faceless workers that seemed to be taken straight from George Orwell’s 1984. For most viewers the effect was deeply disturbing and upsetting. All of the things that were supposedly considered „the new normal“ evoked the creepy New World Order Agenda, whether it be a police state, the repression of free speech, or brainwashing children. The message was supposed to be that the bank recognized and understood the reality of today’s world. The ad backfired and became a target of derision.

It was pure façade and times had changed. People could see through it and the ad was a huge fiasco.

What if the advertising was not just fancy words and slick images? What if marketing could actually materialize something that was of real value for people? Not pretend to be something, but actually be it?

Itaú Unibanco and Bike Sampa

With headquarters in São Paulo, Brazil, Itaú Unibanco is the largest financial conglomerate in the Southern Hemisphere and is the tenth largest bank in the world by market value. Their strategy is shaped by their vision, which is to be the leading bank in sustainable performance and customer satisfaction.

One day, Itaú executives had a meeting with an American named Peter Cabral, who is the business executive/director of Samba Transportes Sustentáveis in São Paulo. Soon the bank’s marketing budget was no longer invested in billboards. It was becoming a movement.

Here in São Paulo, Peter had convinced the largest bank in Latin America to spend their marketing money on sponsoring Bike Sampa – a fleet of rental bikes available to the public at bike stations throughout the city. It’s an ambitious project; the goal is to have three thousand bicycles available at three hundred solar-powered and wireless linked stations. To use the shared system, a person simply fills out a registration online at

In a 2012 press release, Cicero Araujo, the bank’s director of institutional relations and governments, said, „Itaú Unibanco adopted the platform of urban mobility because the bank believes in the use of bicycles as a viable means of transportation in traffic within the big cities.

The excellent utilization numbers prove the success of the program. This endearing acceptance of the bicycles is a source of pride for us and, as the Bike Sampa is still expanding, we believe that the bike will integrate more and more to the city every day and will be an alternative for traveling short distances.“

I met Peter in a symbol of American counterculture business success – a local Starbucks. As I entered I recalled that as Starbucks grew from a few coffee shops to a global empire, the company did no advertising. None. Zero. Its phenomenal expansion was accomplished purely by word of mouth.

Connections Between People and Their City

Coffees in hand, we sat down. Peter looks a bit like Abrahm Lincoln – tall and authoritative. I asked him to give me some insight into the philosophy behind Bike Sampa.

„It’s about creating a movement or phenomenon that is moving very fast, almost faster than the formation of habit,“ replied Peter. „Society as a whole, holistically, needs to develop an affinity and a curiosity to realize whether or not the bike – the dual wheeled human locomotive frame – can fit into their modus operandi, their daily life. When people hear about it, they are curious. They will come to you in the morning and they will look at the rental bike station and say, ‘Well, look, my friend told me about it.’ They see something on the web – on Facebook or Instagram – or a friend says something or posts something, and then there is some form of institutionalised campaign where the mayor publishes something about the bicycle that is wonderful.

„With bikes we are creating lifelines. We are creating a line of visual communication and a platform, whereby drivers of motorised vehicles have to share the public space with other types of vehicles – this time a non-motorised type of vehicle. They start to understand that it is not only a concept but a movement.

„It grows organically. When you work with a product, a system, or in this case a service that relies on folks and individuals, and that appeals to one’s collective sense of sharing, that’s primordial or primitive. We are gregarious, social animals.

„Each one of us can take a step back and realise that this rented bike is something I can use to go to school. This is something I can use once I get off at a subway station, and it’s mine, it’s Christian’s, and it’s also John’s. I can hop on it and cycle one or two kilometres, one or two clicks, deliver it, and get rid of it at another station. Then Christian comes along and he’s going to get on at another bike point and utilise that same bike that I just dropped off, and will ride it all the way home because he has a bike point right next to his apartment building.

„You had five hundred people doing this at first. Soon ten thousand bike users connected with another twenty thousand bike users, and all the sudden you understand that this is not just doing the A to B, B to C. This is organic, it’s viral, and it works at a macro level.

„You understand the possibilities of sharing, and you still have a strong individual sense of presence. Then you realise that, holistically, this is a movement. It appeals to a social level and it’s a more sophisticated way of relating to society, and that sharing leads to something greater. When you start to share resources, you begin to wonder whether this should have been the way it was done all along. This may sound a bit extremist, but you can build a world like that.“

Radical Thinking

Peter had looked at marketing on a complete different level. That was radical thinking, and I could easily imagine people accuse him of being a dreamer. It brought to mind the saying that the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do. „You have to think big,“ I said.

„Yes, you have to think big,“ said Peter. „The reality of São Paulo today makes you wonder about it, because at an incipient stage you have a system that (as opposed to other cities and their systems) was in the beginning very naïve and very reticent regarding its culture. We came in, made it work, and now you see bikes in the most unusual places.

„Perhaps this is not unusual to you. You come from abroad, and you know where those things belong in your average urban landscape.

„But imagine someone emerging from under a rock and seeing bicycles and little bike pictograms and signs saying you’re too close to the curb, make some room, signals communicating with drivers that tell them that the traffic has been reduced so that people can share a public resource. Individual people, on motorised and non-motorised vehicles, can coexist in this area. Such a person will understand that this is a movement. It’s organic and it changes the way the city relates to people and the way that people experience the city. It is sweet mobility. Your mobility context changes; you are no longer enveloped or separated from the city. You feel the city at a different level. You see and hear and smell and feel the cold, the warmth, the wind.

The Impact of Bike Sampa

I really liked the idea of how marketing can actually serve people. What was the impact?

„We have accomplished all of this in a short time span,“ said Peter. „In just three years since the launch of Bike Sampa, the experience is surprisingly positive. We have folks who use and popularise it and want more.

When you put our bicycling program in perspective and you go back forty or fifty years, or twenty, thirty years in France, Denmark, or even Norway, you understand that you had a lot of work back then developing a mindset, a predisposition, and a lot of work in educating.

„It’s a phenomenon that took time to build. So considering and analysing the European bicycle experience in comparison to the Brazilian bicycle experience, I believe the movement has accomplished a lot in a short space of time.“

I agreed that was true, because it took a long time in Denmark, where I am from, to create that culture. I asked Peter about where he thought this movement was in its life cycle or bell curve as described in The law of diffusion of innovation. Had it peaked? Was it sustainable over years or even decades?

„That’s interesting,“ he replied, „because I think about that every day. I think about it in terms of marketing and as a business proposition. What is the next market step? What do I have to do today to continue to be competitive and have the best possible technical solutions? How do I cater to this market? How do I go outside of this market and tell our story? Can we share our story in a regional market?

„I believe it’s our obligation to share this Brazilian experience. If we have tropicalised something from Europe, I feel I have the obligation to go to Santiago, to go to Bogota, to go further north, or to go to Buenos Aires. We did in fact win the contract there for public tendering there, so we’ll be opening there soon. Next time you go to Buenos Aires you’ll see our system there, too.

„I often think about what we need to do to have good technology, services, a business model that will allow for a sustainable business, and public-private partnerships that are good. Which market do we have? Where can we tell our story? We want to master that story.“

I felt mesmerized when he was talking. This was a guy who was unlike many sales and marketing people who just want to hit their sales goals and get next month’s paycheck. Peter was talking with passion. He was there for something bigger.

„There is a role for the bicycle. Bike Sampa raised that flag and was provocative.


I asked Peter how he came up with the idea of a movement.

„You need to feel a certain level of responsibility,“ he said. „We understand that we’re living in a historical moment. The bicycle could make the difference. The bicycle has a legacy and potential. We need companies with a vision and the ability to say, ‘We will take that first step.’ From a position of social responsibility as a company and their shareholders, their mission and values drive the effort.

„To take that first step you need vision and character, and you need a strong belief that what you have today will have a legacy and is worth doing. Itaú Bank has that. They took that vision and took the service and used its values to tell a story.“

I was impressed by Itaú Bank’s bold move. It’s not about advertising any more. It’s not about propaganda; it’s about legacy that is so beyond traditional marketing that I am sure it would be difficult to grasp for most sales and marketing departments.

„Itaú Bank saw an opportunity and decided to tell their story in such a way as to create a positive impact,“ said Peter. „They built a platform, and that platform appeals to social responsibility and social integration, and appeals to society in general in a fashion where they understand the direct benefit. They don’t see that as a traditional branding campaign but as a company that took a step, raised the flag, and set the pace on something that simply had to be done. They understand other solutions to the problem of transport. It was never about publicity but about building a legacy.

„Within the bank, the project owner is not marketing. It is not a marketing programme. We don’t have marketing media, capital, or finance. It’s completely different.“

I was curious to know whether he believed this project could also be a showcase for other businesses. How could Peter see this being applied in other cases? Is that the future of marketing?

„I think it’s the future,“ said Peter. „It’s about creating a legacy and a movement that understands the benefits of such service or product. It could be infrastructure or a service, public works or education, in any sector.

The dogma, private/public, in the sense that we see it in black and white and we see that the only way one sector can come together with another is contractual – I am the public sector and I need something, so I tender, you supply. That works, but there are more innovative ways to shape that and make that something bigger and greater and more sophisticated, and which is in line with today’s needs, challenges, economy, societal needs, societal growth, micro-economy, and macro-economy.

„That opens up a new ecosystem, and it jumpstarts and motivates companies to assume and understand that they are part of something bigger. Public and private are both part of something bigger.

„Once they are part of something bigger, they start to think collectively. All of a sudden social responsibility and social entrepreneurialism are providing them with a better mission and values. That is the change. That change can happen business wise. They can grow.“

From Marketing to Movement

I asked Peter how the movement could ensure that people become customers in the end? Companies might be very skeptical spending money on a movement when the results might seem elusive.

„Think of a business and an advertising interface where X amount goes to advertising. Maybe just skip the interface and you are right in front of the market. You realise the market has been there all along. You just have to be more organic and less artificial. Once you are closer to the market, you become it and you develop a sense of a legacy. There are creative ways to build sustainable business models to provide a basic service or a super product that represent a new way of doing things.

„Think about this: If a company has a million dollars to spend on advertising, all of a sudden they might say, ‘Let’s clean the river.’ The chief marketing officers would immediately ask, ‘How can we show our customers that we have been cleaning the river? We need to have a billboard here, and put our brand here. We’ll have a little dragon boat, and we will activate our brand on the boat. We will do this and that. We’ll have a uniform and go on print.’ It’s all about that.

„We say that you don’t have to do that. Take our bikes. The thematics, the visual communication is elusive and conducive to brand evaluation. Why don’t you tell a story? Why don’t you tell the story that you cleaned the river? How can you appeal to a five- or twelve-year-old kid? How do you appeal to a mother who is pregnant and is about to deliver and she’s worried about pollution? How do you appeal at a grass roots level? How do you start a movement to express or manifest that, in a contagious fashion?

„We live in a world where people push information and download information. I’m always connected and I’m thinking you are the same. We are animals of today’s living. Two or three generations into the future may be ultra- or hyper connected.

„People want to socialize and share experiences. We need to find a creative way to tell that story. To editorialise it.

„Find a way to make it organic,“ he told me. „People get in touch through social networks. We are close to one million users of the bike app.

„I have very interesting experiences, riding along, talking to folks. People tell me, ‘I never thought I could bring my kids downtown and relax. I used to come here with my mother and father; but nowadays I take my children on play dates from school to a friend’s house.’“ I recalled my own childhood and suddenly understood how powerful stories can be. They can be very emotional, and you get a natural urge to share those stories.

I liked what Peter was saying. He sounded like an American optimist, so I decided to play the part of a European pessimist. I was going to poke him a little. „We all know there are bad marketers out there,“ I said. „Companies without the right values. They want to have social profile, a façade, but what is behind the façade can be difficult for the rest of us to see. How can we see through that?“

„That’s human nature,“ he said. „That’s the lack of balance and collective understanding, of belonging and identity. It’s a serious challenge to see through that. I think that for the sake of the market the consumer needs to be better educated and have access to more information, because if they have access to information they will raise their standards. By raising their standards, the markets will adapt to that new standard. How do we see through it? Get closer, share more information, use the access we have to today, make things organic – these are all reasons to get closer.

„One more reason to share experiences. You can have that façade, and you see it every day. But it doesn’t last forever. As a whole, society and the market has the tendency to get more straightforward, sensible, socially responsible, and humanised. The collective perspective with a backbone of social responsibility is the only way for a sustained market growth based on the consumer as a human being.“

I told Peter that I shared that vision. We live in a world that is becoming more transparent. It is difficult for companies to hide and keep up that façade.

„By being opaque, they lose more,“ he agreed. „They lose more shareholders. These days you have shareholders, product investors, funds, that make a point to have in their portfolio either private or equity companies that have some sort of social engagement or responsibility.

„Find an innovative way to tell that story. Make a legacy. First question I ask any time I look at an investment, every marketing, every piece of communication, is, ‘What’s the legacy? How much content? What is the context – Is it organic? Is it not? Is it sustainable? Or not? What is its impact? Is it positive?’“

I asked Peter what his dream was ten years from now.

„Ten years is too soon,“ he said. „I’m looking further out. I see a need for people to get close to one another, to share resources and information and the planet. Everything is inviting us to share. Our resources are everything: where we live, our tools. Soon we will have a new generation who realize that we are too big and too individualistic, that there are too many of us, and that it’s going to be difficult to share at the end. Otherwise we will reach a point where it is not possible – resource-wise, economy-wise, market-wise, business- wise. The kids today understand we need to create that mindset for our own sake. I am talking anthropologically, sociologically. I’m talking about the marketplace, and we need to consider that, because there is a trend: Is it sustainable? Is it aligned with our trajectory?

„More human, less machine dependent, more movement-wise. Machines, mechanics – we can all do that. The thought process, the mindset has to change. We need a Shangri-La – an earthly paradise – like in James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, and companies can provide that.“ Peter doesn’t only have a vision that’s great to tell; it’s contagious, so much that it surpasses any traditional marketing campaign. Itaú Bank has the numbers to prove the effectiveness of the campaign. Itaú wants to be not just the place where you put your money for safekeeping; it wants to change peoples’ lives. In order to spread the word about its initiatives including Bike Sampa, the bank launched #thischangestheworld. The bank reports that one-quarter of all searches related to the brand are #thischangestheworld, and that both customers and non-customers are increasingly identifying Itaú not just with financial responsibility, which you would expect from a bank, but as a force for social good. I sipped the last of my coffee and said goodbye to Peter. Later I tried one of the Bike Sampa rental bikes, and found myself zooming through the streets, dodging pedestrians and feeling the vibrations of the handlebars and the wind in my hair. Suddenly I realized that just as Peter had said, I was now part of the story. The message had become the media itself.