Visa is lacing its skates for the 1998 Winter Olympics in Japan. Its two top rivals will spend most of the time sitting on the sidelines.

Visa U.S.A.'s sponsorship of the Olympics has been a jewel in the company's marketing crown since 1986, and competitors MasterCard International and American Express Co. sporadically have tried to dull its luster with renegade advertisements.

The Feb. 7-22 events in Nagano are shaping up as genteel. Neither MasterCard nor American Express plans to counter Visa's massive effort directly.

The politesse is a sharp contrast to last Sunday's Super Bowl, when all three card brands bought time during what was officially a Visa-sponsored event.

Marketing experts said the decisions by American Express and MasterCard to lie low are linked partly to the U.S. Olympic Committee's censure of negative advertisements, and partly to Visa's close identification with the event.

In previous years, competing companies have run guerrilla ads that falsely insinuated the company has formal ties to the event.

Just before the 1996 summer games in Atlanta, the Olympic establishment announced it would express public disapproval of any company that tried to play unfairly.

"Out of respect for the Olympic Committee, and because we are not an official sponsor of the 1998 Winter Games, we are not using the Olympic logo or any reference to the Games in our global advertising," said Toby Usnik, a spokesman for American Express.

Instead, the New York-based company has focused its efforts on signing Nagano merchants to accept American Express cards. Though Visa cards will be the only ones accepted at official Olympic venues, American Express- attempting to counter Visa's "They don't take American Express" signature line-has achieved nearly 100% coverage in non-Olympic areas, Mr. Usnik said.

American Express will supply free Nagano city guides at retail locations and at its offices in Japan.

MasterCard is not doing any promotions for the Olympics.

"We have an event-World Cup Soccer-that we feel is superior to the Olympics," said Marianne Fulgenzi, a MasterCard spokeswoman.

Ms. Fulgenzi said the soccer championship in France this June and July will be MasterCard's primary sponsorship focus.

Steven J. Smith, president of S.J. Smith & Associates in Scarsdale, N.Y., called MasterCard's and Visa's sponsorships "comparable opportunities," and said it was wise to avoid "trying to ambush each other and dilute the effectiveness of anyone's program."

Thus, during the broadcast of the Winter Games, Visa will be the only card brand blanketing the airwaves with commercials. Visa expects the ads, which spotlight winter sports, to make 1.2 billion "impressions" in U.S. households.

Research shows that "consumers are aware of our sponsorship," said Rebecca Saeger, Visa's executive vice president of brand management. "The message it delivers is aspiration, global, and leadership positioning. Nothing could be better for a brand."

Visa places special emphasis on the Winter Games.

"The Winter Olympics has a more passionate audience than the Summer Olympics, and we have a better opportunity to influence consumer behavior," said Michael Lynch, vice president of event marketing for Visa.

To capitalize on its exposure, Visa has planned a dizzying number of marketing tie-ins.

At the Olympic event venues, Visa has installed 17 international automated teller machines that accept Visa cards only. Vendors on Olympic grounds will take Visa exclusively.

The company is also flying 25 children to the Games, winners of the international art competition "Olympics of the Imagination."

Back at home, Visa will continue to promote its "Pull for the Team" money-raising program for Olympic athletes. First USA Bank, a Wilmington, Del.-based subsidiary of Banc One Corp., introduced a credit card this month that will funnel a percentage of cardholder purchases to the program.

The Platinum Visa Nagano 1998 collection features a choice of 13 designs commemorating different aspects of the Olympic Games. Visa expects transaction volume on the cards to raise $7 million for Olympic athletes between now and the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney.

Three of the cards spotlight gold-medal performances from U.S. Olympic heroes, including speed skater Bonnie Blair, who won five gold medals.

"Virtually every country except America is funded by the government, so we do rely on corporate America to help the athletes to reach their goals and their dreams," Ms. Blair said in an interview.

Visa said its Olympics ad strategies have been "phenomenally" effective. The company credits Olympics-related marketing with helping to boost the its U.S. market share to 52%, from 40% in 1985.

"There are millions of merchants out there who take Visa but don't take American Express, so it has been relatively easy for us to motivate consumer behavior," Mr. Lynch said.

Given Visa's tight hold on the event, industry observers wondered whether its image might be hampered by overexposure.

"There is a value to having consistent tag lines, but for the commercials to sell well they have to be relevant and speak to the particular event," said Stanley W. Anderson, president of Anderson & Associates in Arvada, Colo.

Frances M. Dale, president of the Sterling, Va.-based consulting firm Entandem, said the constant reinforcement could work in Visa's favor. "What they are trying to do is create the perception in consumers minds that (Visa) is everywhere you want to be," she said.

John H. Bennett, a card marketing consultant in Chatham, N.J., said the absence of MasterCard and low-key presence of American Express would be a boon for Visa at the Olympics.

Mr. Bennett built Visa's Olympic sponsorship strategy before retiring from the company in 1996. He also previously worked at American Express.

"MasterCard has good business reasons not to get involved in the Olympics and to focus their resources on the World Cup," Mr. Bennett said.

"American Express has had a history of trying to insinuate that they are somehow involved with the Olympics," he said. "If they are saying now that they are not going to do that, then I think it is a sign of real maturity on their part."

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