Upfront 2004 – The Advertisers: Credit Cards

As the war to be “top of wallet” intensifies, spending outlays among the big credit card players—MasterCard, Visa, Capital One and American Express—should keep them top of mind with network media buyers.

While MasterCard’s overall spend jumped 23.6 percent last year and American Express’s rose 1.7 percent, according to TNS/CMR, the other two biggies scaled back. Visa cut spending 5.9 percent while Capital One’s declined 18 percent.

“Top of wallet” refers to the idea that advertising is less about trying to convince users to get a new card than to use their card more often. “If you have nine credit cards in your wallet, you’re probably going to keep those nine,” says Anthony Hegarty, vp-sales, financial account team for Baltimore-based marketing service firm Vertis. “The point is to get yours to be one that they use.”

Marketers have addressed the issue with promotions like MasterCard’s “Priceless” efforts, which reward users for tapping the card at restaurants and on vacations. But another key opportunity is “entanglements”—monthly billings charged to a card, which make it harder to break ties with a card issuer. Thus, credit card issuers are focusing on getting users to put their gym, utility and phone bills on the card.

Credit card companies have found network TV an effective vehicle for getting such messages out, but Hegarty noted that the overall trend, as in other industries, is toward a more customized message, whether it be targeted by demographic or attitude. “What they’re all striving to do is create bigger needles and smaller haystacks,” he said.

In 2003, firms in the category spent $623 million on network TV, $403 million of which went to prime time, a 19 percent jump over the previous year’s $338 million on prime time, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus.

What may threaten the spend is a demographic shift. As credit card marketers switch their sights from Gen X to Gen Y, there’s a growing sense that they may need to shake up their marketing approaches. That sense is compounded by a mysteriously shrinking 18- to 34-year-old male viewership, an especially troubling development, since men are more likely to have more than one card. David Robertson, publisher of The Nilson Report, Oxnard, Calif., a credit card industry newsletter, expects that merchants will step up sponsorship activity to reach the demo. “They might go around [Major League Baseball] and buy sponsorships with individual teams,” he says.

Therese Mulvey, vp-marketing research at Vertis, says the switching demo is causing some soul searching. “I think they’re all looking at what they’re doing,” she says. “They’ve been doing a lot of the same stuff with direct mail for a while. They’ve got to be asking, ‘Can creative be changed?’ You can’t just keep doing the same thing and get the same results.”

Indeed, MasterCard’s “Priceless” campaign is in its seventh year while American Express has used its “Official card of . . .” tagline for more than five years.—Todd Wasserman

Todd Wasserman is news editor for Brandweek.


If Jerry Seinfeld were writing this, he might ask, “Who wants to go on the Internet to watch a commercial? What’s next? Turning on the TV to watch spam?”

Then again, if Seinfeld’s material was that weak, he wouldn’t be where he is today: at the center of an audacious effort from American Express to get people to watch a commercial via the Internet. Thousands of people so far have gone to americanexpress.com/jerry to see a “Webisode” featuring the star’s adventures with an animated Superman, voiced by Seinfeld alum Patrick Warburton. The five-minute short is mostly bantering between Seinfeld and Superman, but includes a not-so-subtle plug for AmEx at the end. Judy Tenzer, a spokeswoman for the credit card firm, said there will likely be other such efforts.

“We’re looking at a lot of different ways to reach cardmembers and prospective cardmembers,” she says. “We’re using a complement of marketing and media approaches and looking at a variety of things.”

American Express’ small business-focused Open card is also testing the synergy waters with product placement. The first effort, which drew some criticism for transparent hucksterism, was with The Restaurant, a reality show following celeb chef Rocco DiSpirito that ran on NBC last summer. The unit did not re-up for the second season, but will take part in Blow Out, another reality show, this time about the exploits of celebrity hairstylist Jonathan Antin.—T.W.