Visa Sees a Golden Opportunity in Beijing

Visa has been the official payment service at the last 11 Olympics, and a top-tier partner of the International Olympic Committee since 1986. But events over the past year have repositioned Visa’s business and marketing dynamics regarding the Summer Games in Beijing. In June 2007, Visa became the exclusive financial services marketing partner of FIFA (Federation International Football Assn.), giving it global rights to the World Cup, which, added to the Olympics, aligned Visa with the world’s two biggest sports events. In November, Visa named nine-year PepsiCo executive Antonio Lucio as its first global CMO. And in March, Visa, San Francisco, raised $17.9 billion in an IPO, per the company. Lucio spoke with Brandweek about Visa’s Olympic efforts, including a campaign that broke in May, “Go World,” via TBWA\Chiat\Day, Los Angeles, featuring such athletes as Michael Phelps and Kerri Strug. Visa spent more than $360.4 million in media in 2007, per Nielsen Monitor-Plus (not including online).

Brandweek: What unique challenges and opportunities do you see in Beijing?
Antonio Lucio: Visa has a strong Olympics partnership history and alliance with both the IOC and USOC. I was also involved with the Olympics when I was with PepsiCo. So from experience I can say that each Olympics has challenges and opportunities that are unique to those Games. But in looking at China and Asia, we saw that the dynamics of the business in that particular market were not going to be as they had been in previous Olympics.

For Visa, there are two fundamental challenges associated with these Games. This is our first Olympics since our IPO. So we are looking at a significant increase in marketing on a global, rather than regional, context and a new approach to defining ROI and measuring sponsorship on a global basis. Visa is a global brand with global acceptance. That always has been a cornerstone of our business. But with the Olympics, and also I would say with FIFA, we are taking a more vigorous approach to standardize and define our numbers around the world and to prove that we can deliver ROI. Another challenge is that we are a relatively small business in China, where [the category] is pretty much controlled by domestic companies and is controlled by the central government. But with properties like the Olympics we have opportunities to develop the category [there] in the long-term.

BW: How will you make your message resonate so that consumers will remember what Visa is saying?
AL: You address that by the different programs you have in each area of the world. We have a promotion in 66 countries offering Visa cardholders the opportunity to win a trip to the Olympics. In Asia we are featuring [Chinese basketball legend and NBA star] Yao Ming and [actor] Jackie Chan in promotional and ad campaigns. In China, Visa has installed more than 90,000 ATMs and [we have] 216,000 merchant locations. We also invited people in Asia to submit photos to a “Visa Moving Images” Web site that showed their vision of the Olympic theme, “Faster. Higher. Stronger.” In the U.S., we launched “Go World” to honor our historical affiliation with the Olympics and to celebrate the Olympic spirit. Given that we just came out of a U.S.-driven IPO, this is a statement of our brand aspirational values and our global presence.

BW: How have you seen Olympics-related marketing change over the years?
AL: Three things have changed. First, there has been a fragmentation of media, which means that from the get-go you have to develop a comprehensive program that delivers on a three-dimensional standpoint, what used to be called 360-degree marketing. If you don’t start with that particular premise, you’re missing the boat. Second, you have to have the understanding that within the framework of three-dimensional marketing there needs to be an element of consumer-direct participation and engagement. Without that, in an era where consumers expect to co-create and feel part of the overall brand proposition, again, you will be missing the boat. At, we invite consumers to put in either their favorite Olympic moment or their favorite human achievement story, to be shared with the world. We then have consumers vote on, and celebrate, those moments, and we will reward them at the end of the promotional period.

Third, because the media is fragmented, because it is 3-D, because you expect a certain level of consumer participation, content has to drive everything that you do. You have to develop programs that will sustain high bars on TV, the Web and even YouTube. So this return to high quality, high impact production values that will go across your media options has become more important than ever.

It is interesting how the [process] has evolved. The first era of consumer participation was putting stuff on the Internet for everyone to watch. Now that there are mechanisms by which only the cream will rise to the top, you must have the highest quality and most unique communications. So that has [raised the] bar and [put] added burden on content creation and content value.

BW: Is the competition at the Olympics not just among athletes, but also among marketers?
AL: When you have the opportunity to participate in the Olympics, which is global and center stage, your bar is not just to be best in class within the financial services or financial network environment. The task of three-dimensional creative input is to be best in class period. To reach consumers, you are competing against world-class sponsors like adidas, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s. It’s just the way it is.

BW: Let’s say it is now September and the Beijing Games are over. Has Visa met its goals?
AL: At the end of the Games I want to say that we achieved all of our financial targets, that we received a record level of participation from our banking partners, that they were very satisfied with the programs we were able to activate and that our brand equity rose around the world. That, to me, would be success.

BW: What has been the reaction to the “Go World” campaign?
AL: We love the concept. It has tested incredibly well. “Go World” has been out since May, and we will continue to add dimensions to the program on the Web with new Olympic and Para-Olympic-driven stories, refresh the campaign on TV and, as we get closer to the Games, open it up for more direct consumer participation and engagement.

BW: Aside from being in China, does the state of the economy in the U.S. also present a challenge to your Olympic messaging?
AL: Our portfolio is very balanced and . . . we have a truly global footprint. More than 50% of our transactions are outside of the United States. As the U.S. and European economies have slowed down, what’s happening in Asia, Latin America, Central Europe and the Middle East is really an [economic] explosion. As we have over the last couple of recessions in the U.S., we have been able to weather that storm with a balanced and diversified product portfolio and a broad score in terms of global footprint. As I said, we are being very vigorous in measuring results and accountability. At the end of the Olympics we will regroup and measure results on every single dimension in business and brand. Numbers talk.

BW: Looking ahead, Visa has signed to host the Olympic “handoff” presentation, where officials from Beijing will literally pass the Olympic flag to officials in London, which will host the 2012 Summer Games.
AL: We have a team in Europe and in London following our marketing footprint, which will take four years. We are working with tourism companies, working with London’s infrastructure, building relationships with the Olympic committees. The moment the lights go off in Beijing, the lights will go on in London. And at the same time we will begin to have participation from around the world so that with [the Winter Olympics in] Vancouver we will have, for the first time, a truly global approach to the marketing of the Games as opposed to the regionally led marketing we have done. And don’t forget that we will be very active in 2010, with the Winter Olympics in Vancouver and the FIFA World Cup in South Africa.