Visa starts Olympic marketing

Ads feature track star Liu Xiang

By Published on .

BEIJING--Visa International has launched its first marketing effort highlighting its sponsorship of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, an event many marketers, including Visa, hope will give them greater brand equity and awareness with consumers in China’s fast-growing economy.

The latest chapter in Visa’s “Achieving Dreams” campaign marks the endorsement deal between the credit card brand and Chinese Olympic champion Liu Xiang, now a global brand ambassador for Visa. Mr. Liu became one of China’s most popular athletes when he triumphed in the men’s 110-meter hurdles at the 2004 Games in Athens--the first time a Chinese man had won an Olympic gold medal in track and field--and he is likely to be one of the most-watched athletes in Beijing.

“By working with Liu Xiang, we hope to draw more attention among consumers worldwide to the development of sports in China and the coming 2008 Beijing Olympic Games,” said Richard Chang, Visa’s exec VP and general manager, Greater China. “Liu Xiang is China’s Olympic hero and we greatly admire his spirit of constantly challenging himself in pursuit of his dream.”

As a worldwide Olympic partner, Visa is the exclusive payment card and official payment service of the Olympic Games through 2012, and will be the only card accepted at all Olympic venues for all official Olympic-related transactions. In addition to sponsoring Mr. Liu, Visa, like many advertisers in China, is eagerly attaching its brand to the country’s various teams. Visa is now the official partner of the China National Short Track Speed Skating Team, the China National Figure Skating Team and the China National Free Style Skiing Team.

Visa is tapping into Mr. Liu’s athleticism and popularity with a TV spot created by Omnicom Group’s BBDO Worldwide in Shanghai. Set in Australia, the ad blends the track star’s talents with that country’s natural landscape. He chases a kangaroo and gracefully jumps over natural hurdles like country fences, while surrounded by exotic indigenous fauna and animals such as koalas and giant crocodiles. The spot ends with Mr. Liu helping a young girl retrieve a toy kangaroo. Throughout the spot, which launched late last week, a voiceover conveys Visa’s commitment to helping cardholders worldwide realize their dreams.

The agency did not pick an international locale simply for its beauty. The growth of charge cards in China is increasingly connected to the country’s growing exposure to the outside world. The ownership and use of charge cards by Chinese is still relatively low. There are few credit rating facilities in China to help residents qualify for them and only hotels and restaurants catering to international visitors reliably accept payment by credit card. As a result, there is low awareness about how charge cards operate.

According to McKinsey, the number of credit cards in China quadrupled from mid-2003 to mid-2005, but the total number was still just 12 million, a scant figure in a country with a population topping 1.2 billion. Ninety percent of the credit cards belong to the most affluent consumers in China--mostly residents of Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen with annual incomes above $4,000.

However, growth is expected to be rapid as more Chinese search for flexible financial services and charge card ownership as they start traveling abroad, because Visa and its competitors are almost essential on the global travel circuit to pay for hotel rooms and other services. Mr. Liu, for example, cited his “deep understanding about the inconvenience of carrying cash when traveling abroad for competitions” as the origin of his endorsement deal with Visa.

“As the Chinese economy grows rapidly, overseas travel has become increasingly popular with consumers,” said Mr. Chang. “Visa is actively working to create a good electronic payment environment, allowing more Chinese cardholders to enjoy the convenience and ease of using their Visa cards when traveling abroad.”

Visa has also found ways to facilitate card use for outbound Chinese tourists over the past year, such as a tie-up with Hong Kong Disneyland.

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