Despite a 60% share of the credit-card market and a $600 million global ad budget, Visa has sent out an inconsistent message over the years while rivals have carved out distinctive niches: American Express confers status, while MasterCard helps bring families together.
By contrast, Visa has become a taken-for-granted commodity, a position the marketer -- fresh off an initial public offering, global restructuring and under the direction of new marketing leadership -- is vowing to change by unifying its disparate global-marketing messages.
The prospect of a consolidation of an account worth hundreds of millions of dollars sent roster agencies flocking to San Francisco last week. All are pitching to Visa, everywhere it wants to be.
The contenders are incumbent Omnicom Group's TBWA/Chiat/Day, Playa del Rey, Calif., Visa' lead U.S. creative agency since 2005; sibling BBDO Worldwide, which previously had the business for years; WPP Group's Grey Worldwide, which handles work in Europe; and Publicis Groupe's Leo Burnett Worldwide, which does work in Canada. Each is backed by additional holding-company resources in areas such as digital, direct and promotions.
Eggs in one basket
Visa in June said it planned to ink a deal with an incumbent holding company, provided it has a proven track record understanding the business and can support Visa's marketing activities. The additional benefit is the potential cost-efficiencies such a consolidation would offer.
The move is being spearheaded by Antonio Lucio, the 25-year marketing veteran who landed at Visa last November as its first global chief marketing officer. Mr. Lucio most recently served at PepsiCo, known for its penchant for consolidation.
"Antonio is a breath of fresh air there," said Steve Cone, CMO of marketing technology provider Epsilon, who has previously led campaigns for Citigroup and American Express. "They were very lucky and smart to get him onboard. ... He seems to me to be very open to new ideas, extremely savvy in terms of all aspects of marketing, and I expect great things to happen to get back [Visa] on track."
Visa led the global general-purpose credit-card category in purchase volume in 2007 with 60% of the market, double that of MasterCard, which has nearly 30%, and triple that of American Express, with 10%, according to the Nilson Report, a publication that tracks consumer-payment systems worldwide.
But while its ads are remembered -- according to Nielsen IAG, national TV ads in the U.S. outperform MasterCard in brand recall by more than 40% on average -- it doesn't have a creative platform that is crisply distinct from competitors'.
In its pitch-briefing documents to agencies, Visa says it has lost ground with its constituents and become a commodity. The crux of the problem, marketing experts said, is its inability to differentiate itself. MasterCard tugs on heartstrings with its emotional "Priceless" campaign, and American Express continues to stand for sophistication and first-rate service. But Visa -- while a masterfully run company -- hasn't successfully carved out a memorable platform.
"Where they've missed the mark in the past is the idea of closeness and the quality of the relationship with the customer," said independent brand consultant Dean Crutchfield. "Visa is lost a little bit in the middle. It needs to do something simple, smart and something that gives a little element of surprise."
Visa, like Mastercard, is less exposed to risk than American Express because it doesn't take on credit risk and is paid based on transactions. But when consumers buy less, there are fewer transactions, so Visa is not immune to the impact of a recession, wrote Argus Research analyst David Ritter last month.
The first task for Visa -- and the holding company it ultimately chooses -- will be to unravel its myriad marketing messages.
Consider, for example, the number of taglines the marketer uses around the world. In addition to "Life Takes Visa" in the U.S., it uses "Visa -- All You Need" in Canada and Africa; "Visa -- Life Is Now" in South America; "Visa -- Love Every Day" in Europe and Asia; and "Visa -- All It Takes" in Australia.
The new global creative agency also will have to hone and strengthen the brand message. "'Life Takes Visa' is extremely weak," said Epsilon's Mr. Cone. "It's an overreaching platitude. Life doesn't take Visa; merchants take Visa."
"Their previous tagline was a true statement that was a good offense against American Express and MasterCard, that was compelling and memorable," Mr. Cone added, referring to Visa's "It's Everywhere You Want to Be" campaign from BBDO, which ran for 20 years. Marketers should "never change a great line."
"It's easy for marketers to get bored with what they're doing and want to move on," said Joyce King Thomas, exec VP-chief creative officer at Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann Erickson, New York, who is credited with penning MasterCard's "Priceless" campaign. "But [the MasterCard] campaign has worked, so there hasn't been any desire to move away from [it]. ... It has been emotionally resonant from the beginning."
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Contributing: Jeremy Mullman