Byting Back: VISA

VISA entered the online advertising game for an entirely different reason than most traditional companies—to focus on the transactional side of e-commerce. Credit cards or “plastic” remain the only way consumers can pay for products or services online. It only made sense, then, that VISA associate itself with major e-commerce sites across all e-commerce channels, including apparel, books, CDs, toys, travel. . . the list goes on. The company built relationships with these sites by offering itself as the “preferred card” for online consumers.

Recently, however, the company has slightly shifted its online strategy. Whereas before VISA might have wanted consumers to click on a banner ad to learn more about how they could use their credit card to purchase products or services online, today the company also wants to utilize the Internet as simply another advertising medium to enhance its VISA brand.

Today, when company officials talk about e-commerce, they also talk about advertising campaigns such as “Verified by VISA”, which speak to consumers who are either hesitant to shop online for fear of having their credit card information stolen, or shop online but only at three or four “trusted” merchants.

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“Brand has always been important to VISA, but it’s just now that we’re learning how to use online for branding purposes,” says Jon Raj, the company’s director of advertising. “Now we’re focused on building the brand and building the business. These are the two hallmarks of our online efforts.”

The company only recently started capitalizing on larger ad units (skyscrapers) and rich media for its branding campaigns. For example, when the “Verified by VISA” campaign launched last December, VISA used Eyeblaster, Flash and PointRoll to demonstrate the value of its program. These technologies enabled them to vividly explain in a limited space how the program opens up a new world for consumers who were previously hesitant to use their credit cards online. “The more info we can get to the consumer without forcing them to leave their destination site, the more successful we become,” explains Raj. “Our objective isn't to disrupt a user's experience but rather to enhance it. We are confident that along with our television and print executions, we will be successful in raising awareness of our brand.”

A more recent branding campaign focused on the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah. The company wanted to be able to utilize large ad units (skyscrapers, etc...) that were rich-media enabled to “really showcase the excitement of the Olympic Games and VISA's involvement. “It wasn’t about getting the most numbers of impressions, but rather about getting our message out there in a way that really had an impact with consumers,” explain Raj.

Between now and the end of May, VISA will capitalize on the popularity of the television show “Survivor” by featuring each week the one “survivor” who gets booted off the island. Consumers who use their VISA card at participating online merchants are automatically entered to win “immunity” from their purchase amounts, plus $5,000. A new winner will be chosen for every week of the promotion.

But all this is only part of the overall online strategy shift at VISA, which really came to surface last year when the company hired its current agency AKQA. “We finally came to realize that it’s best to bring both the media buy and the creative under one roof, says Raj. “Both have to work together to get the best product out there, especially in this new medium. If you really what to get the best campaigns on the best websites, you have to be willing to do new things, write a new playbook. Fortunately, a lot of the sites are willing to work with us on the next new online experiences.”

Along with these branding campaigns, VISA also wants to push the envelope and experiment with different forms of technology, creative and media.

Raj explains that by using all a variety of media, VISA can really catch consumers in the right frame of mind. For instance, VISA has found that sports fans are not only naturally passionate consumers, but they spend a lot of time online. “If you want to reach NFL fans, you go where they live. We’ll by advertising space at football stadiums and on NFL telecasts. We’ll sponsor a Fantasy Football game online. Our commitment to use integrated campaigns, advertising, event marketing, promotions, direct mail, PR and online advertising to generate brand awareness is because it creates relevance to our consumers,” says Raj.

How does VISA go about measuring brand awareness?

For openers, company executives no longer look at just click-throughs, but rather at the association between the VISA brand and the company’s objectives. “Too many companies make the mistake of measuring anything that’s measurable—the click-through or the cost-per-click—whether or not it’s even relevant. We’ve done ad recall testing, pre- post-surveys, as well as test-control research to see if we've moved the needle,” says Raj. “We’ve used third-party research companies with the sole objective of increasing consumers’ association and preference for using VISA. What we're finding is that we're increasing preference for our brand by advertising online.”

Even in the so-called good old days, online advertising was the ugly stepchild to traditional advertising. Raj believes many traditional companies, like VISA, viewed online advertising as simply a direct response vehicle and not as an “viable” branding tool. It seemed back then that if we weren't measuring a click-through rate then we weren't doing our jobs. VISA, on the other hand , along with our online advertising agency, is finally writing the playbook and testing different strategies. And that's the way we're going to be successful. It's challenging, but frankly it's also quite inspiring.”

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