Nancy Friedman is vice president of advertising for Visa USA. Her keynote this morning at Ad:Tech 2003 touched on how the Visa brand got so strong, how the company keeps its brand relevant, and how integrated marketing fits in. Here is a rough transcript of her talk:
What I’m going to do today is introduce Visa as a case study and highlight four important areas. I’m going to talk about the importance of a strong brand and how we understand the brand and keep it relevant. Visa is not a for-profit company. It’s actually an association. Our members are banks and acquirers. Banks issue cards, and acquirers make sure that you can use Visa cards in stores and restaurants. Our sales have just reached $1 trillion annually. Our goal is not to take market share away from American Express or MasterCard. 50% of all transactions are still paid with cash. So we’re still on a growth curve despite how big we are.
The question you might ask is how Visa got so strong. It started back 18 years ago. Consumers said Visa was good for middle- and lower-class people, mostly women. At the time, MasterCard had the advantage in terms of image. We wanted to gain belief in our credit card. And we wanted to broaden the categories in which people used our card. BBDO recommended that we focus on our strength, which was acceptance. People were worried that people would take out a card, it wouldn’t be accepted, and they’d be embarrassed. They also suggested we take on some of the upper-scale imagery used by American Express. We settled on “Visa: It’s everywhere you want to be.”
We knew we were onto something good. We talked to cardholders about which card they thought was the best overall card. In 1985, 40% said Visa. Today, almost 60% say Visa. We’re accepted at about the same amount of vendors as MasterCard, but the impression is that Visa is more widely accepted. We monitor consumer behavior and impressions. That’s why we’ve stuck with the campaign for 18 years. It’s the longest-running campaign in financial services history. Visa is used three times more often than MasterCard and six times more often than American Express.
How do we keep the brand relevant? We want people to remain actively engaged with our brand. We want people to choose Visa, use Visa, and never lose their Visa. You need to stay in touch with your consumers. You need to adapt to changing environments. And you need to ensure relevance.
We use a Cardholder Tracking Study that examines brand attributes and perceptions over time. And we use a Brand Health Tracker. Another study we’ve done is a Brand Fitness Study. We ask users questions about brand imagery. We show people pictures. Which of these people are more likely to be Amex users? MasterCard users? Visa users? Then we ask people where they’re most likely to use our card. Will they buy a refrigerator? Will they eat at a French restaurant?
We also track our advertising communications. But we take it a step further. We can actually quantify the ROI of our television advertising. And throughout the year, we talk to consumers about their behavior and perceptions.
The second principle I mentioned is to adapt your brand and product line to the changing environment. In 1985, we wanted people to prefer the Visa credit card, Today, there are many different types. We need people to prefer all those types. We’ve also needed to establish broader usage. 10 years ago you couldn’t use your credit card at the grocery store. Now you can use them at movie theaters and grocery stores as well as times when your cards not even there, such as on the Internet. We’ve also had to differentiate. There’s not just our major competitors. There’s cash, checking, and regional payment plans.
One of the things we do is keep up with popular culture. We keep up with popular culture and attach it to our brand. In one ad, we identified a star right on the cusp of their stardom. And in another, we took something that happened in popular culture and twisted it. You probably saw those ads a lot in the World Series. The PR on those ads could fill a binder.
With our advertising online, we introduce interactivity. People online don’t want to leave the site they’re reading. They don’t want to click on a banner and go elsewhere for more information. In this campaign, all of the information you need is included in the banner. The only reason you’d need to leave the site would be to sign up. We also offered a Survivor program. It ran for four weeks online. The day after the show aired, you’d see a banner featuring the person who was kicked off the night before. For our NFL program, we work closely with ESPN. We work with the Gamer. You might expect that his column would be sponsored by Visa. In fact, his entire review is in our banner.
Our integrated marketing campaigns can include consumer advertising, a promotional element, PR, an event, and an ad on our site. We also work closely with our banks and merchants. We have a lot of levers we can use to bring a promotion to life. Integrated marketing improves our chance to make a statement in the marketplace. We want people to use their Visa. We can also focus activity on a certain timeframe. All of our messaging is focused. Lastly, it’s made us, Visa, a partner of choice.
How do we do that? First of all, we have unique platforms to build on. Our organization is structured to facilitate this kind of marketing. We really focus on collaboration. As you know, we have a world-class sponsorship program with the NFL, Disney, and Nascar.
The brand marketing group at Visa is large, about 100 people. We have an advertising and brand management group, an event and sponsorship group, and a marketing group. In my group, the online advertising person reports to me, not to IT. That gives them a lot of power.
How do we collaborate? The keyword is taskforce. All disciplines and agencies participate. Every taskforce has a leader. We develop a central platform as a blueprint based on research, trends, and consumer insights. This works for two reasons. We openly communicate. And we take the same approach with our agencies as we do our internal people. Everyone is approached as an expert in their field.
Online advertising is a critical component. Five to seven years ago, when we started, our goal was to convince online shoppers to use Visa. Now we focus on giving brand messages. The director reports into the advertising department. He participates in every project. They’re dialed into all of our product strategies and promotional strategies. It’s also a director-level position. They’re not dabbling in online advertising. And online, metrics is a key mantra. We test all of our campaigns. Why? Because you can. It helps us learn what works and what doesn’t. We use a test and control methodology. People who have seen our online advertising feel more strongly about our brand. We also use online advertising to target specific groups: young adults, small business people, people looking for a new credit card, and Hispanics and gays. It’s a wonderful venue to give brand impressions.
There’s two types of integration. The first is strategic. The next is executional. All of our integrated marketing is strategically aligned. And sometimes it’s executional. All of the creative will be consistent, including messaging, graphics, and color palette. We spent a lot of talking to people in small business, and while they love their business, they dont love a lot of what they have to do. So we offer them tools to help them do what they need to do. For our youth-oriented Ideas Happen campaign, the online portion was really the hub. We also offered tear-off fliers for guerrilla advertising on campuses. And we incorporated that idea into a print ad campaign. The goal was not to get people to use their Visa but to increase their perception of Visa as the right card for them. We changed their impression of the brand. We’d never seen movement like that before.
To summarize, we focus on developing a strong brand and keeping it relevant and fresh. And integrated marketing is a much-stronger approach. We push online advertising to its limits. And we spend a lot of time educating other groups about online; we evangelize. Research is critical to keep in touch with your brand and what the trends are. And we monitor the effectiveness of our programs.
Question: I don’t watch much TV compared to how much time I spend online. I’ve seen most of the TV ads you’ve done, and I don’t even have cable. But I’ve never seen any of your online advertising. Is that a typical experience?
Friedman: Because we’re a mass brand, we spend more time and more money on our TV ads. That doesn’t mean that online ads aren’t important, and I’m surprised you haven’t seen any of our ads. We’re on the popular sites such as Yahoo and ESPN.
Question: You mentioned some of your partners, such as Seven Gables. Do those partners come to you? How do you decide who gets the extra promotion?
Friedman: We decide that we want to tell a story about a partner such as the Fog City Diner in San Francisco. We go to them. But we do get calls. I got a call the other day from a guy who does snake removal. He thought we should do an ad that says when you need to do snake removal, use your Visa.
Question: The Olympics advertising has been pretty subdued. We haven’t seen the lead up we’ve seen in the past. Can you tell us a little bit about your plans?
Friedman: Your question is very timely. We’re just starting to work on that. People don’t really start to talk about the Summer Games until January. Promotions will start in February, but the hype begins in January.
Question: What percentage of your advertising budget is online?
Friedman: I’d say 10%. Because we’re a mass brand, we focus on brand messages. We don’t just remind you to use your Visa online. We give overall messages.
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