Visa Turns Plastic Into Gold With Olympics

Games Educate Cash-Happy Chinese About Credit Cards

By Published on .

BEIJING--For Visa, the Olympics is an opportunity to educate Chinese about its brand, and credit cards in general.

In mid-July, Visa installed 26 specially designed ATMs inspired by Chinese culture and calligraphy. Blue and white brush strokes and traditional signature seal designs on the kiosks, similar to those found on traditional Chinese porcelain vases, marry the traditional Chinese art with modern technology.

The kiosks will be found at at competition and other venues including the Olympic press center, the international broadcasting center (IBC) and the green home media village. Of the 26 units, one will be installed in Hong Kong, host of the 2008 Olympic equestrian events, and two in Qingdao, where sailing events will take place.

The ATMs "are just the last leg of the marathon in a brand-building story that started in 2004, when we didn't have any above-the-line advertising in China," said Li Sheng, Visa's executive deputy general manager and head of marketing, China.

He relocated to Shanghai four years ago to lead the Olympic marketing and sponsorship program for Visa, an official worldwide sponsor and the only card accepted at all venues of the Olympic Games since 1986.

It hasn't been an easy task, said Mr. Li, who has worked on five previous Olympic Games. If the ATM launch seems a bit lackluster compared to the high-profile campaigns from other sponsors such as Adidas and Coca-Cola Co.....well, that's how Visa planned it.

"Hopefully, we did our job before the games will kick in," said Mr. Li. "The first thing I learned is that we didn't have a marketing team. That was pretty much the beginning for Visa in China. Even in Beijing and Shanghai at that point, most people didn't know who Visa is and more didn't know what a credit card is."

Visa is using the Olympics not just to develop a brand but to create a category, with strategies to promote card acceptance, said Beijing-based Greg Paull, a partner at R3, which tracks the brand performance of Olympic sponsors.

"They've also leveraged stars relatively well, with Jackie Chan, Liu Xiang and Yao Ming getting good exposure. Visa's big challenge is getting the awareness levels of Coke and Yili for a product Chinese people are still not familiar enough with," said Mr. Paull.

Teaming with sports

Mr. Li scrambled to launch Visa's first corporate branding campaigns in China and line up associations with sports figures ahead of the Olympic Games. In Visa's first TV spot back in 2004, for instance, synchronized swimmers formed the four letters in Visa's name.

That year, the company also sponsored the China national women's field hockey team, a tough, demanding sport that requires intense training and dedication--attributes Visa wanted consumers to attach to its own brand.

Like many global sponsors, Visa used the Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, as a launch pad for its marketing platform in China, Mr. Li said. "We knew there would be added interest for Chinese consumers because the Winter Games were the last Olympics before the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing."

Visa signed 10 top Chinese athletes, including top medal-winners from the Olympic Games in Athens who are likely to do well in Beijing next month, to help the global marketer forge a local and emotional bond with Chinese.

"Team Visa" includes the country's two most famous athletes--champion hurdler Liu Xiang and Yao Ming, a center on the NBA's Houston Rockets team--as well as the women's field hockey team and China's national rowing, kayaking & canoeing, sailing race & windsurfing and slalom teams.

Visa has also partnered with other sponsors such as Bank of China, Lenovo and Air China, and is developing future tie-ups with companies like China Mobile and China Netcom.

Clutter was early concern

Visa's strategy in China for the 2008 Olympics faced one major challenge from the beginning--clutter. Chinese consumers have been inundated with Olympics-related and other sports marketing as sponsors and non-sponsors alike struggle to boost their brands in China through the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Also, two of the key components of Visa's marketing--a relationship with sports celebrities Yao Ming and Liu Xiang--are not exclusive. Both athletes are sponsored by many other companies and risk overexposure. Liu Xiang has banked deals from Nike, Coca-Cola Co., China Mobile, Inner Mongolia Yili Co. (a major Chinese dairy) and Amway's Nutrilite vitamins. Yao Ming has even more lucrative deals with Reebok, Apple, Coca-Cola and McDonald's Corp.

Operating in a heavily saturated media environment has been a concern from the start, admitted Mr. Li. "It's all about timing, when to do what, how to avoid clutter. We went out with thematic campaigns when everyone else was doing product ads. The other challenge is to be global and Chinese and modern at the same time, which is difficult since electronic payment is a new industry for China."

In 2006, Visa tapped 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 hurdles like country fences, while surrounded by exotic fauna and koalas and giant crocodiles. The spot ends with Mr. Liu helping a young girl retrieve a toy kangaroo.

Visa didn't pick Australia 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. But as more Chinese travel abroad, Visa and its competitors, Mastercard and American Express, are almost essential to pay for hotel rooms and other services.

The campaign's star, Mr. Liu, even cited his "deep understanding about the inconvenience of carrying cash when traveling abroad for competitions" as the main reason he signed an endorsement deal with Visa.

Besides supporting China, the kangaroo campaign told people how to use Visa for overseas travel and tourism, said Mr. Li. Last year, Visa created a second major TV campaign featuring Yao Ming and another celebrity in China--Hong Kong actor Jackie Chan.

China is "a celebrity-skewed market," explained Chris Leung, a Shanghai-based business director at BBDO, Visa's creative agency in China. When we use celebrities, "The stories are built for those celebrities. The Liu Xiang story is about hurdling, and a young man exploring overseas. He's seen as a lovable person who is very compassionate. We tried to put that aspect of his personality into the commercial for Visa."

Credit cards not well known

Although the use of plastic is growing fast in China, credit cards have been a hard sell.

Chinese with enough money to have credit cards tend to pay in cash--even when they travel. Stories abound in Hong Kong, for example, about mainland Chinese businessmen paying for rooms at the city's top hotels like the Mandarin Oriental by opening a briefcase packed with RMB bills.

Their preference for cash can seem sinister--they don't want to create a paper trail, which implies, at best, dodging the Chinese taxman and at worst, involvement in shady deals. Using credit cards hasn't been easy either, since few merchants in China accept them.

Issuing cards has also been tricky for banks. One consequence of China's Communist heritage is that consumers have no credit history. China's banking culture is highly fragmented and the standards and policies for banking in general--not just credit cards--has varied by region.

The situation has changed dramatically in the past couple of years as the infrastructure has improved. Banks are more comfortable offering credit cards to a growing middle class, as well as automobile loans, mortgages and other wealth management products. Retailers, including a growing number of foreign players like Wal-Mart, Carrefour and Best Buy, have made it easier to use cards too.

About 804,500 merchants in China accept bank cards. And 21,660 outlets, and 90,000 ATMs, accept international Visa cards in China.

The number of Chinese credit cards almost doubled in the first quarter of 2008 to more than 104 million credit cards in circulation, up 92.9% from the same period a year ago, according to the People's Bank of China. In 2004, there were only 2.74 million international credit cards in the mainland, used primarily by Chinese traveling overseas, according to American Express.

Free trips to the Olympics

Last October, Visa launched a "Win a Trip a Day" promotion focused on brand positioning while helping Olympic organizers in Beijing promote the message that tickets for the games were on sale. Every day for eight months, Visa gave away one package with tickets to two Olympic events, hotel accommodation for three days and two nights, sightseeing tours and transportation within Beijing.

The promotion was open to any Chinese national using a Visa card overseas, including visits to Hong Kong and Macau. Each transaction was entered into the "lucky draw."

After the Olympics kick off, Mr. Li said sponsors' success will rely on "knowing the reasons people get behind the Olympics [when] enthusiasm and an overwhelming sensitivity will take over. You'll be buried if you go out with a product message during the Olympics. Who cares? What we have thought about is how we can be part of the festivity and the game atmosphere and still be relevant to our business."

"In terms of cutting through the clutter, we knew this situation would exist and tried to modify our strategy and look at this over a four or five-year period, not just something to do just ahead of the games."

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