Visa's 'Social-by-Design' Effort Makes Its Debut on Global Stage

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After 25 years as a sponsor of the Olympics, coming up with a first can be difficult.

But longtime advertiser Visa is going for that gold in these games with its first "social-by-design" marketing campaign. It's a fitting strategy, given the London games have already been dubbed by many as the first social-media Olympics.

"We threw down the gauntlet at an all-hands marketing meeting early on, that we will make this the most social games for us and for any other sponsor so far," said Kevin Burke, global CMO for core products.

Visa then extended the challenge to its ad agencies, Omnicom Group's TBWA, Atmosphere Proximity and OMD. Later, Visa invited partners Facebook and Google to contribute ideas.

Many brainstorming sessions and briefings later, the central idea of "Cheer" emerged. As in everyone cheers for Olympic athletes. This summer many fans will likely be cheering through social-media channels, the thinking went, so why not organize the cheering and own it? But, as Mr. Burke conceded, initially "it was a very young idea."

The challenge Visa faced was that the emerging platform needed to be about more than just cheering for a favorite athlete. Visa needed to give people a reason and an incentive to cheer. So it turned to its own Olympic focus group, the 60 Olympic athletes who make up Team Visa, including such notables as swimmer Michael Phelps, runner Lopez Lomong and tennis player Li Na. The athletes told Visa that cheers, in fact, do make a difference.

Kerri Walsh, a 2004 and 2008 gold medalist in beach volleyball, told Visa marketing executives that when she's having a particularly tough training day, she turns to her social network for "inspiration and energy."

And so the cheer platform -- with the call to action that fans can make a difference -- was born. "It's the simple filter that all the work had to pass through," Mr. Burke said. Indeed the theme cuts across all media in the campaign, which will be Visa's largest Olympic effort to date, running in 70 countries.

Kevin Burke, global CMO for core products
Kevin Burke, global CMO for core products
The first TV ad narrated by actor Morgan Freeman, made its debut earlier this month. Called "The Difference," it features triumphant moments in Olympic history -- from Russian pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva's record-breaking jump to gymnast Nadia Comaneci's perfect 10. It ends with video of Mr. Phelps' 100-meter butterfly win for his seventh gold medal in Beijing. As Mr. Phelps touches the wall just fingertips ahead of his competitor, Mr. Freeman intones: "When we come together to cheer, as one [Mr. Freeman chuckles], we know what happens. ... Join our global cheer."

The Olympic campaign flies under Visa's "Go World" Olympic theme, maintaining the same visual style with sepia and gold tones, as well as retaining Mr. Freeman as narrator. "Go World," launched just before the Beijing Olympics in 2008, has performed well, resulting in double-digit growth in consumer perception and return on investment when compared with non-Olympic campaigns, Mr. Burke said.

As part of the online cheer effort, fans have been asked to upload a text, photo or video cheer they've created for the athletes. Visa's Facebook page will serve as the global hub of the collection of consumer-submitted cheers and athletes' responses, as well as behind-the-scenes videos of the athletes' stories and training. Fans can also submit "one-click cheers" online or via mobile on social media including YouTube or through partner sites such as Yahoo and Sports Illustrated. Over the next several months, Team Visa athletes will also reach out to their social networks as de facto Visa cheer ambassadors with stories of how encouragement from fans helps them.

The online cheers, submitted by fans during a promotion that runs through June 15, will be used for at least one, and possibly several, congratulatory ads to be run during the Olympics in Late July and August, Mr. Burke said.

Visa's "social at its core" approach is prudent, given social media is expected to play a much bigger part in the London games than it did four years ago. Although Facebook and Twitter were used at the Beijing games, with just 100 million and 6 million users, respectively, they were not as mainstream as today. Today, Facebook counts some 900 million users, while there are more than 100 million users on Twitter. The two social-media services have also been officially sanctioned and integrated for the first time by the IOC at the online Olympic Athletes' Hub where fans can "like" or "follow" a myriad of global athletes.

Visa isn't the first to tout the continuing shift to an engagement strategy that emphasizes digital and social media, rather than traditional media outlets.

"Fewer and fewer advertisers will start their strategic marketing planning with a television advertisement in mind," PepsiCo's global head of digital, Shiv Singh, recently wrote in the Harvard Business Review.

This year's Super Bowl also put that strategy on display. Coca-Cola's polar bears spanned TV, online and social media, while Audi let social-media fans "unlock" its TV ad by completing a puzzle on Facebook days before the big game.

"It's not necessarily easy to pull this off unless you're a gigantic brand and you're building around something big like the Olympics," said Marty Weintraub, CEO of integrated social agency AimClear.

"For years we've seen consumer brands testing to consumers on places like Facebook and LinkedIn," Mr. Weintraub added. "The concept of crowdsourcing is not new. ... YouTube is littered with half-ass commercials and promotions created by consumers where the commercial was going to be an ad at the center of a campaign."

While building out the campaign from a social strategy is a first for Visa, it's not an experiment but a sign of things to come. Mr. Burke said, "Will every campaign be social by design? There's a very good chance of that. But definitely every program will incorporate a social strategy and that's always a question we'll ask."

Visa will measure the success of the campaign using several traditional gauges like business metrics such as transactions, card activations and usage; brand-equity measures such as awareness and perception; as well as the satisfaction of clients such as its merchants and banks. Social engagement is the fourth measure, and particularly important in this campaign. Visa will measure likes, video views, uploads of cheers and shares to gauge success.

"It started with: How can we facilitate a global conversation and engage with consumers around the world in what is truly one of the most celebrated events?" Mr. Burke said. "We use what we call an "audience-first approach' to our planning and developing a plan that is social by design is a new direction for us. We certainly have a global social-media plan, but what the Olympics allows us to do is to have a global conversation and bring the world together to cheer as one, whereas often our initiatives are more local or specific to a geography."

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