Why Visa's going big for the Olympics

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Longtime Olympic sponsor Visa is broadening its exposure this year, for the first time launching a global campaign tied to the games.

The marketer first became a sponsor of the Olympics Games in 1988, the same year speed skater Dan Jansen appeared in his second Winter Olympics. He lost two races that year, but became an Olympic legend, holding the nation captive as he stumbled and fell just hours after learning that his sister had died. He returned to the Winter Olympics in 1992, finally winning a gold medal in 1994.

Now Visa is retelling his story in a TV spot that's getting kudos and confessions of tears. The spot is one of six in Visa's campaign, from Omnicom's TBWA, around its sponsorship of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, B.C., featuring athletes, their stories and the “Go world” Visa tagline.

Besides being global, the campaign is a departure because it is more promotional and includes more digital elements than ever before, said Global CMO Antonio Lucio, including first-ever 3-D ads and YouTube channels, as well as promotions such as the chance to win Winter Olympics tickets for life.

“We are a technology company, and we've built a business based on innovation,” Lucio said. “Whether it is the success of the debit card or anything we're doing on mobile and money transfer, we want to leverage the same innovative skills that we use on our products in our marketing.”

Visa spent more than $1 billion in advertising, marketing and promotion globally in fiscal year 2008, according to its annual report. Global Olympic sponsors reportedly pay up to $100 million for a four-year Olympic period.

Lucio, who was accompanied by Jansen, visited with Advertising Age, a BtoB sibling publication, prior to the start of the Winter Games to talk about the new ad campaign, the Olympics and why it's a key part of Visa marketing.

Ad Age: Let's talk about the new Olympics campaign. You've blanketed Grand Central Terminal here in New York with the Visa Olympics and “Go world” message—and I know there are San Francisco and Vancouver campaigns as well— but why choose Grand Central as the main venue?

Antonio Lucio: The decision for New York was rather easy. It's the highest-trafficked station in the U.S. and probably one of the top five in the world. So having access to a great number of people was a great way to showcase our three-dimensional campaign for the Olympics. It is a first for Visa and it is a first for Grand Central Terminal. We are featuring two ads in 3-D; also, we have 3-D posters that are backlit. The 3-D commercials run at very specific times during the day; the rest of the elements of the campaign are there all the time for the whole month. We have a group of people who are there giving out the glasses every time we're featuring the 3-D spots.

Ad Age: What are some of the other elements of the campaign?

Lucio: It's a very different year for us on several levels. First and foremost, it is our first global campaign for the Olympics. It leverages the success of our “Go World” Summer Olympic campaign, and now we've made that global. It is [also] more promotional in nature. For the first time, we're devoting about 50% of our media buy to promotions. The third difference is that we're going more digital than ever before. We have a very significant purchase with YouTube—we've created a channel where all the Olympic TV spots are going to be released first. We also have a very important component on Facebook. We've created a page that has links to the pages of all the Visa athletes, and in those pages, [you can] see what they're going through in their training, through videos that they themselves are taking, as well as in the games. It is the first time that we have a very comprehensive and significant digital strategy.

Ad Age: What is your return on investment? How do you figure out exactly what you're getting out of the Olympics?

Lucio: It is a significant investment but one that we have proven time and time again delivers significant value for us. Remember, we are a public company for the first time. We had to renew the Olympics deal as a publicly traded company, which meant the highest level of scrutiny in our numbers and in our evaluation of what the Olympic Games represent for us in terms of business. We went through a very deep analysis, and we were able to justify our investment in terms of revenues, global activations and in brand-equity indicators that show growth every time we feature the Olympic Games. We have 20 years of history, so we have models of what our revenue lines do when we are featuring Olympic themes. We can actually identify the activations and transactions at our banks, and we very specifically measure all the brand -equity indicators, whether it is “preferred brand” or “relevant brand.” All the analysis that we've done has been very positive.

Ad Age: Is the Olympics more or less important now, when there is so much more noise out there, as a premier showcase?

Lucio: If you take into consideration what happened in Beijing, it actually broke ratings records in the U.S. and across the world. It all depends on how good the games are, how well the U.S. team does and the number of stories that are created around it that drive people to watch. Given the economic situation we're in, the markets are ripe for big events. People are spending more time at home. Take a look at what has happened with ratings on major shows like the Golden Globes or the Grammys. I would hate to forecast because I don't have a crystal ball, but I'm expecting great viewership of the games.

Ad Age: Off the Olympics topic, but as we're coming out of the recession, how does Visa handle that? Do you change your messaging or your media?

Lucio: We're beginning to see positive signs. Our numbers are a very close reflection of retail sales, for example. Remember, we've also got a diversified portfolio, which means we've seen significant growth in the debit business, and also more than 50% of our business is now [done] internationally. It is true that the U.S. is still immersed in a recession, but Asia, Latin America—particularly Brazil—and countries like Russia are growing in a very important way for us. As far as messaging is concerned, we maintain a cautious approach: We focus on selling product benefits a lot more. we focus on promotions because consumers require value; and we focus on brand and inspirational [messages] because, god knows, the nation needs a boost, and I think the Olympics will be great at that. When it comes to media selection, we focus on investing in those media channels that deliver high return on investment—therefore our focus on digital. Finally, anything that we can do to drive synergies, we do. And I don't think that's going to change when the economy picks up. We have already identified a couple of countries and platforms, even in the U.S., that we would be ready to increase investment in if things pick up in a significant way, and that's a big change from 2009.

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