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Visa: Life Takes Rebranding

By Apr 24, 2006

The longstanding brand platform for Visa (“It’s everywhere you want to be”) is no longer everywhere it used to be. In February the leading payment network unveiled its first new tagline in 20 years, “Life takes Visa,” steering the brand in a whole new direction.

Only two months following its debut, during the Winter Olympic Games on NBC, the “Life takes Visa” campaign has already achieved a phenomenal 45% aided awareness. The big question now is whether it will accomplish its main goal, which of course is to drive increased volume and profitability for the Visa family of payment-related products.

We’ll know the answer soon enough as Visa embarks on the next phase of the multichannel campaign, this one geared toward promoting the benefits of specific products, including various types of credit cards, check cards, and gift cards. The idea is to move beyond the macrobranding effort that has defined the campaign up until this point and to give people a compelling reason to go out and make a purchase decision.

Not your run-of-the-mill marketer
From a marketing perspective, Visa is a strange animal. The brand is a household name, one that tens of millions of consumers carry in their pockets every day. And Visa spends more than $300 million each year putting out messages into the marketplace aimed at consumers.

Yet in reality, Visa is a business-to-business marketer. After all, its real customers are banks and merchants, not consumers. For their part, consumers may believe they have a relationship with Visa, even though the relationship is actually with Chase, Bank of America, Citibank, or one of any number of other issuing banks.

These banks rely on Visa (and/or MasterCard) to create their share of the 5 billion U.S. credit-card offers—99.5% of which end up in wastepaper baskets—they send out each year with their own brand identities stamped front and center. So while Visa generally produces the direct mail marketing materials, the banks generate the distribution lists and manage the outbound campaigns.

And when it comes time to measure the results of those campaigns and determine the business outcomes? The banks tend to keep Visa in the dark. According to Visa chief marketing officer Suzanne Lyons, it can be a challenge to ascertain even macrolevel trend-related results. “We know what went out,” she explains. “We don’t know what came back.”

So, paradoxically, one of the largest marketers in the U.S. receives practically no information regarding the return on its marketing investments. Instead Visa has to make due with measuring high-level results along dimensions such as brand health and brand equity, based primarily on consumer surveys.

In terms of marketing mix, Visa uses various models to try to optimize its spend among sponsorships, direct marketing, television, radio, print, online, and the other usual suspects. Without response data, however, the process involves a lot of guesswork. This is true even for the online channel, the fastest-growing piece of the mix (fueled by partnerships with Yahoo!, Google, and others), where getting a read on brand impact can be nearly impossible.

Sponsorships are also notoriously difficult to measure. Estimating the value of a given sponsorship means looking at it on a relative basis using brand awareness studies. While Visa’s long-term sponsorship of the Olympic Games appears to be money well spent—better than that of, say, NASCAR or the Kentucky Derby—nobody at Visa knows how many new customers sign up for a card as a result of having spent a few hours watching bobsledding, luge, and ice hockey.

Millions of missed opportunities
Besides the dearth of information regarding its marketing programs, Visa has no window into the treasure trove of credit-card transaction data. Nonetheless Visa is happy to work with bank personnel to help them gain a better understanding of their customer database and metrics capabilities—and perhaps generate some of its own insights in the process.

Today we think of the financial services industry as being somewhat ahead of the curve in terms of customer data integration and analysis. While that may be true relatively speaking, most banks, organized as they are by business units on a profit-and-loss basis, still don’t have the infrastructure and processes in place to enable data-sharing across all parts of the organization. As a result, they continue to spurn the opportunity to look at customer relationships on an individual or household basis.

The inability to create a unified view of its customers puts banks that offer a broad portfolio of financial products at a particular disadvantage. After all, it precludes them from being able to determine the value of a customer to the company as a whole (and treat them appropriately, based on this knowledge) or to engage in product cross-sells in a timely and relevant fashion.

That the mortgage and insurance divisions may have no visibility into what’s happening in the credit-card division can only result in a steady stream of missed opportunities. After all, a significant deviation from a person’s normal purchase behavior can serve as an excellent indicator of a life stage event or major project activity (for instance, home improvement). Ideally such a deviation should trigger a specific marketing treatment driven by a rules-based decision system.

Parents-to-be may make a large number of baby-store purchases, for example. Given the ability to detect this new purchase pattern—and given a unified view of its customer relationships—a bank may opt to recommend a term life insurance policy or an educational savings account plan to prospects who don’t already own these products. Or consider a purchase pattern that suggests that a teenager in the family is about to leave for college, in which case the empty nesters may be faced with a very different set of financial circumstances that the bank could effectively address.

At Fair Isaac (where our clients include 99 of the top 100 U.S. banks), we often recite the mantra “You are what you buy,” meaning that credit-card transaction data can provide invaluable insights into a person’s lifestyle, hobbies, fashion and music sensibilities, favorite sports teams, vacation destinations, and so on. Such information can be used to interact with individual customers in a context-sensitive manner and to provide them with promotions, rewards, and services that are personalized and tailored to their specific needs.

With the launch last summer of its Visa Incentive Network, Visa aims to empower merchants with new capabilities in precision marketing. According to the press release, the program “helps merchants tailor discounts and promotions to the most interested cardholders. Instead of grouping cardholders by preselected reward categories, merchants and card issuers can, in the future, offer dining promotions to cardholders who are avid restaurant-goers, discounts to consumers who prefer boutique shopping, or special offers to frequent travelers.”

Merchants can serve up relevant offers at the point of purchase or in follow-up direct mailings. Some merchants are even collaborating with the issuing banks to include the targeted offers as credit-card statement inserts.

Segmenting for profit
When it comes to customer segmentation, Visa tends to take a needs-based approach. Where are there needs in the marketplace? Where does Visa have products that can fill those needs? Where is there a real growth and volume opportunity?

One segment about which Suzanne Lyons feels particularly passionate is the youth market. While Visa has traditionally avoided putting the words “credit card” and “children” into the same sentence, for fear of being perceived as a company that wants to get children “hooked on debt,” the emergence of prepayment products such as the Visa Buxx card are changing the rules of the game.

“These are terrific payment products,” says Lyons, noting that the vehicles provide a safe and secure way for children to shop and for parents to monitor their spending. “It’s a very appropriate category for us to be marketing into.”

But many banks look at products, including the Visa Buxx card, strictly on a profitability basis. They may conclude that there’s no money to be made on the product and therefore no reason to sell it.

“In my mind, it’s very short-sighted,” Lyons says, noting that the people who would tend to buy the card are likely to be affluent adults purchasing an add-on product for a member of their family. “It’s an additional handcuff to the relationship,” says Lyons, who points out that many people use Visa simply because it happens to have been the first card they ever got out of college. They developed a brand loyalty for no particular functional attribute reason. “That would suggest that you would want to do a strategy of trying to get as many people as possible have that be the first brand they use in this category.”

Another big growth segment for Visa is the Hispanic market, which in general remains more cash dependent than the mainstream market. This is particularly true of first-generation immigrants, who may be less comfortable with the notion of credit or plastic and yet have a real need for more-advanced payment mechanisms. For this segment, the message revolves around safety and security—the fact that if you lose the card you can get your money back.

The new campaign
As for the genesis of the “Life takes Visa” campaign, Lyons explains that, after two decades, it was time for a change. Besides, according to the brand driver studies, it was no longer enough that the card is accepted everywhere you want to be. Acceptance and convenience remain important, of course. But in recent years, some other attributes have also become more relevant in the payment space, notably security and reliability.

“‘Life takes Visa’ was meant to give us an umbrella under which we could house all the different attributes and benefits,” says Lyons. “And when you have emotional drivers as well as rational drivers, you’re more likely to get a bigger bang for your buck.”

Some of these drivers are currently on display at LifeTakesVisa.com, in the form of more than 50 video vignettes. The response rate has been huge, with some of the videos played more than 300,000 times in the first month alone. Will widespread interest in the videos translate into higher revenues? Like just about everything else related to Visa’s marketing investments, it’s hard to know.

Jeff Zabin is coauthor of “Precision Marketing” (Wiley, 2004) and a director in the Precision Marketing Group at Fair Isaac, a leading provider of marketing decision management solutions. He blogs at http://www.paretorules.com/ and can be reached at jeffzabin@fairisaac.com