Visa’s Innovation Lab Lets Brands Play With Digital Payments

Returns to San Francisco roots with technology

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By all accounts, payments are moving mobile and digital for retailers. But trying to explain what is largely an intangible (and sometimes hypothetical) industry to marketers is nearly impossible, which is why Visa's latest digital bet takes place in a physical space that mirrors real-life experiences.

As Chris Curtin, Visa's chief digital officer puts it, an innovation lab gives marketers hands-on experience with mobile payments that they may not be getting elsewhere. "How do you have that conversation without ending up in a PowerPoint presentation?" he says.

To do so, Visa moved its headquarters from Foster City, Calif., to San Francisco in July to surround itself with the municipality's tech companies and culture. Plus, San Francisco is where Visa originally set up shop in the 1950s. So far, the team has created Visa Checkout—a button that speeds up transaction times on retailers' mobile apps and sites—and is involved in Apple Pay.

"Our responsibility in the lab is to be omnichannel and to really be able to initiate or simulate any transaction [and] bring them all back to the same common place, which is how we process, how we communicate, how we secure and manage the transaction itself," said Matt Dill, svp of innovation and strategic partnerships at Visa.

After launching a campaign with the NFL earlier this year, the company is now cranking up the marketing around Visa Checkout for the holidays, which includes a national TV ad launching this weekend highlighting how uses the feature as well as digital and social components. The brand also recently launched a TV ad with ballerina Maria Kochetkova touting its partnership with Gap. 

Building Digital Commerce

Visa's new headquarters take up two floors in San Francisco's One Market Plaza, holding 600 employees from all departments. Roughly 25 to 30 employees are dedicated for the lab.

The innovation lab itself includes four rooms on the bottom floor. The first room that a visitor passes through is a large briefing space with a screen that's used for presentations.

The second room is set up like a retail store with rows of smartphones, tablets and desktops to show off the latest in payment technology like near-field communication and Square. Drop-down cameras in the ceiling are used for virtual demos if a client isn't in San Francisco. There is also a green screen used to mock-up real world experiences using Visa's technology. Following the demos, clients hash out a plan of action at a roundtable located in the third room.

At the far end of the hall is the final room—the incubator—where a team of research scientists and developers work to build out tangible products and digital projects. That small group working inside the incubator represents the great lengths that brands are willing to go in grabbing San Francisco's top tech talent, a challenging task for many big-name marketers in the area.

Within a roughly 20-block area around Visa's headquarters, McDonald's, Wells Fargo, Zappos, Target and American Eagle Outfitters also have digital outposts.

"We're hungry to retain the best and brightest type of talent," Curtin said. "The fact that we're all within 10 to 20 blocks of each other means that we only get out as much as we put in."

This article is part of a series this week profiling seven brands' innovation labs. Click here to read more. 

@laurenjohnson Lauren Johnson is a senior technology editor for Adweek, where she specializes in covering mobile, social platforms and emerging tech.