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Ad Beat

Visa's Image Overhaul

Anyone who has seen Visa Inc.'s advertisements from its latest "Currency of Progress" campaign can't help but notice the stark contrast from its ubiquitous "Visa: It's Everywhere You Want to Be" message.

Instead of encouraging consumers to spring for that ski trip or new dining room set, the ads aim to redefine the company best known for branding credit cards as a facilitator of global commerce. One television spot uses a mother's story to explain how Nebraska's shift to Visa prepaid cards for child support payments is saving the state more than $350,000 a year, while helping recipients get their money quicker. Another ad shows how Visa debit products have helped move millions of unbanked consumers in India into the banking mainstream.

The shift in strategy is an attempt by Visa to distance itself from the banking industry, which, over the last 18 months, has lost much of its credibility - with both consumers and policy makers. Though its name is branded on more than one billion bank-issued credit and debit cards, Visa points out on the marketing campaign's Web site, currencyofprogress.com, that it "is not a bank, and doesn't issue cards, extend credit or set rates and fees for consumers."

Says Doug Michelman, Visa's global head of corporate relations: "We want to recast the perception of Visa as a company that is not part of the problem, but part of the solution. We want people to pause and think about what they increasingly take for granted. This is, in fact, great technology."

Still, there's a reason that the campaign, which kicked off in October, is running primarily in the Washington, D.C., market. (A broader campaign is being considered).

Congress has already enacted a law to restrict card issuers' ability to raise rates and assess penalties, and it is currently debating legislation that would reduce merchant fees. The campaign is part of a broader initiative to frame the interchange debate as a business-to-business issue, "not the consumer issue that the merchants' lobby has attempted to portray it as," according to Visa chief executive Joseph Saunders.

"Currency of Progress" is Visa's first corporate identity effort since it morphed from a bank-operated association to an independent firm and ultimately, in 2008, to a publicly traded company.

To create the politically oriented ads, Visa hired the Washington political communications firm GMMB, whose partners include Obama campaign strategist Jim Margolis.

GMMB partner David Mitchell said Visa's aggressive timeframe - from developing the concept in January to an October launch - was a challenge, as was the company's goal of combining its "definitional" message with one about corporate good. "That would usually be considered a separate corporate responsibility message," he says.

The television ads, which have run on local Washington stations, CNN and during Sunday political talk shows, are cinema-worthy productions. They start with a view of Earth and zero in on places around the globe where Visa cards are being used: a jewelry store in Mumbai, a New York City cab, London's Financial District. TV, print and online ads also focus on how Visa is improving government efficiency through e-payments and even advancing financial literacy in low-income markets. (One TV spot shows a teacher in a heavily Latino California community using materials from Visa to teach money skills to students, who then pass on what they've learned to their immigrant parents.)

Print ads have appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and D.C.-centric publications such as Roll Call. Online ads have shown up on traditional news sites, as well as The Huffington Post.

Advertising analyst Evan Tracey of Campaign Media Analysis Group in Arlington, Va., describes "Currency" as a "preparing-the-battlefield" campaign. "These ads are a clever and effective way to put your talking points out there, so that when lobbyists sit down with lawmakers, it isn't the first time they've heard this," he says.

Tracey likens Visa's effort to advertise the societal benefits of its success to past campaigns by the drug and oil industries. For example, Tracey says, some pharmaceutical industry campaigns have focused not on particular drugs but on overall health advances and research and development. The oil industry has promoted the benefits of exploration and new energy breakthroughs.

"Visa is presenting the 'effect' side of its argument," Tracey says. "They're saying, 'Our success has bred these advances in global commerce and capitalism.'"

Visa won't confirm its budget for "Currency" placement, but Tracey's firm estimates Visa spent $1.4 million on TV and print ads for "Currency" in October and November.