Anyone who has seen advertisements from Visa Inc.'s "Currency of Progress" campaign can't help noticing a stark contrast in its corporate message.
The payments company's long-running "Visa: It's Everywhere You Want to Be" campaign has encouraged consumers to spring for that ski trip, for example, or a new dining-room set, but the new message is aimed at redefining Visa as a facilitator of global commerce, and to distance itself from banks.
One television spot explains how Nebraska's shift to Visa prepaid cards for child-support payments is saving the state more than $350,000 a year, and helping recipients get their money quicker. Another ad shows how Visa debit cards have helped move millions of unbanked consumers in India into the banking mainstream.
The shift in strategy is an attempt by Visa to set itself apart from the banking industry, which, over the past 18 months, has lost much of its credibility — with both consumers and policymakers. Though its name is branded on more than 1 billion credit and debit cards, Visa points out on the 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."
"We want to recast the perception of Visa as a company that is not part of the problem, but part of the solution," said Doug Michelman, Visa's global head of corporate relations. "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 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 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's chief executive Joseph Saunders.
"Currency of Progress" is Visa's first corporate-identity effort since it morphed from a bank-operated association to a publicly traded company in 2008.
To create the politically oriented ads, Visa hired the Washington communications firm GMMB, whose partners include the Obama campaign strategist Jim Margolis.
GMMB partner David Mitchell said Visa's rapid time frame — 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 said.
The TV ads, which have run on Washington stations, CNN and during Sunday political talk shows, have cinematic production values. They start with a view of Earth and then zero in on places where Visa cards are being used: a jewelry store in Mumbai, a New York cab, London's financial district. The ads also focus on how electronic payments are improving government efficiency, and even advancing financial literacy in low-income areas. (One TV ad shows a teacher in a Latino community using Visa materials to teach money management to students, who pass on the skills 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 alternative sites such as The Huffington Post.
Advertising analyst Evan Tracey of TNS Media Intelligence's Campaign Media Analysis Group in Arlington, Va., describes the Currency campaign as a "preparing the battlefield" effort. "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 said.
Tracey compared Visa's effort to advertise the societal benefits of its success to past campaigns by the drug and oil industries. For example, he said, some pharmaceutical campaigns have focused not on particular drugs but on overall health advances. The oil industry has promoted the benefits of exploration and new energy breakthroughs.
"Visa is presenting the 'effect' side of its argument," Tracey said. "They're saying, 'Our success has bred these advances in global commerce and capitalism.' "
Visa would not confirm its budget, but Tracey's company estimates Visa spent $1.4 million on TV and print ads for the campaign in October and November.