A marketing race is on the cards

Mastercard has tended to pip Visa to the post in the race for consumers’ wallets, powered ahead by its ‘Priceless’ ads. But Visa’s new campaign could give it a run for its money. By Catherine Turner

 While Mastercard has trumpeted its “Priceless” positioning in the UK and Europe for almost a decade, Visa has chopped and changed between numerous marketing messages, ceding ground to its newer but more consistent rival

Both brands must play to a complex mix of stakeholders, including consumers, businesses and issuing banks, but as ingredients, rather than standalone brands, and on the generic premise of payment provider.

Visa Europe, which licences the brand across the region, is hoping to ape the success of Mastercard’s campaign by overhauling its sponsorship strategy and advertising after 12 months of debate and review.

Richard Huntington, strategy director at Visa’s ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi, says the brand is hoping to enjoy the benefits of consistency that Mastercard has achieved: “We feel we’ve got something to last us a good while and that has got a lot of mileage in it.”

If that is the case, it will be not a moment too soon, according to industry observers who feel that Visa has lost too much ground to Mastercard, which launched in the UK 15 years ago and only really gained critical mass following its merger with Access in 1996.

Euro RSCG executive creative director Gerry Moira says of the difference between the brands: “It is consistency, even before you get to the content.

“The Mastercard work isn’t ‘Sony Balls’ but it is quite good, it has a human dimension – a humility – that Visa’s often hasn’t. Visa ads haven’t known what they are about – they’re not about ‘me’, they’re corporate ‘blah’. It is a remote brand. Mastercard’s is a very strong campaign, even nine years on, and has left Visa playing catch-up.”

Out – after just two years – goes the “Love every day” campaign, in favour of “Life flows better with Visa”, which Visa hopes will give it the longevity and consumer connection to rival “Priceless” (MW.co.uk, March 20).

It also admits that its sponsorship focus has relied too heavily on sport and is looking to move into the entertainment arena to balance its Olympics and FIFA World Cup deals (MW last week). Some suggest the move mirrors Mastercard, which sponsors the Brit Awards and Swarovski Fashion Rocks, on top of several football partnerships.

Indeed, Mastercard was itself previously the FIFA World Cup sponsor, but was unceremoniously ousted in favour of Visa in 2006, leading to a year-long legal wrangle with the football governing body. Mastercard eventually settled for $90m (£45m) and agreed to discontinue its sponsorship of the 2010 and 2014 sponsorships.

Visa Europe senior vice-president of brand management Joe Clift admits its marketing has not been good enough recently. He says: “Yes, we are changing, but I wouldn’t say that it’s a fundamental revolution.

“What we have done in the past 12 months is have a deeper look at the right brand and strategy for us in Europe, yet not flying in the face of what Visa is globally. Globally, the Visa brand is about empowerment but we felt we hadn’t got to the heart of what that meant in Europe.”

That, according to Robbie Millar, director of global brand consultancy EffectiveBrands, is key. “Having a clear global brand positioning and communication strategy like Mastercard and Visa is step one,” he says. Moreover, ensuring proper alignment of the global strategy with local market activation is “even more important”, by “unlocking the true potential for business growth of a great global ad campaign”.

Clift adds: “We know Mastercard has had a consistent campaign and has invested significantly and stuck with it and that, presumably, accounts for its success.” He insists though, that Mastercard is not front of mind and that Visa’s mission is about displacing cash and cheques: “That’s the real game for us. It doesn’t mean that we don’t look [at Mastercard’s marketing] but we don’t spend our days and nights worrying.”

Perhaps not, but Ben Rhodes, Mastercard vice-president of marketing for the UK and Ireland, suggests that the “brave” Priceless brand campaign that launched in the UK nine years ago is core to its growth. He says: “Priceless is based around the insight of using credit cards to help fulfil what matters in people’s lives. It is a brave positioning to have – that there are some things that money can’t buy. It’s about having dinner with your family, rather than going grocery shopping. It has helped us get the brand from a low awareness to a comparable awareness of Visa in the UK.”

However, Clift believes that, contrary to Mastercard’s strategy of having a separate debit brand – Maestro – Visa’s single brand for both is “absolutely” right. “Visa can stand for credit and debit, and any form of fast reliable payment,” he says.

Mastercard, though, would disagree. Rhodes says of the Mastercard brand family: “We are an ingredient brand, but not in the same way as Intel. We have a clear mandate that we want to be seen as a global payment system, at the heart of commerce. And by the very nature of the evolution we are moving beyond credit cards, such as payment systems in mobile phones, giving people access to their money or credit lines in different ways.”

As Millar says: “Both Mastercard and Visa have the same strategy of switching consumers from using cash to cards and have similar new technologies to achieve this.”

Such technologies include Visa’s PayWave and Mastercard’s PayPass contactless payment cards introduced in London last September. Beattie McGuinness Bungay planning partner David Bain bills it as a “battle of the two generics”.

He suggests both seem to be emulating what is happening with mobile operators, who offer similar deals in terms of minutes, coverage and money, but increasingly differentiate themselves with extras such as gig tickets and VIP areas and downloads.

In terms of brand, if not business, Visa is playing catch-up. It will be hoping that the inconsistencies of its ad cam-paigns over the past decade have not given Mastercard a priceless and permanent advantage. 

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