Some of the major vendors at last week's National Bank Card Conference in Chicago were not just selling wares. They were selling vision.

Strategic vision, that is.

The companies readily communicated their views of a payment and information services marketplace more encompassing than the credit cards that absorb most of the conference attendees' daily energies.

Some vendors also handed out, and acted out, their corporate strategies and mission statements, as if to say, "You're not just buying our products. You're buying an outlook."

It is a marketing strategy that International Business Machines Corp. honed to a fine art, and that has since pervaded the information technology industry to the extent that MasterCard and Visa are no longer the only vision purveyors at their most important industry event.

The card associations would probably be among the first to concede that no one has a monopoly on vision, but suddenly they have some serious company.

First Data Corp. came on like gangbusters, using unprecedented promotional muscle to become the talk of the American Bankers Association's 23d bank card meeting. (See the accompanying article.)

With a small army of First Data employees and marketing, advertising, and public relations specialists in. tow, First Data made its vision and strategy tangible, and in black and white.

One press handout had section headings that included "First Data's strategy for continued growth," "The consolidation of the acquiring [merchant-processing] marketplace," and "The future of electronic payment systems."

There was also a summary and explanation of the acquisitions and reorganizational steps, dating back to First Data's origins in 1969 and accelerating in 1994, that put its current aggressive mode in context.

Taking its bid for industry prominence a step further, First Data set itself up as an opinion leader. It sponsored the keynote address by trend-watcher John Naisbitt; contributed the services of Roger Peirce, president of First Data's electronic funds services unit, to one of the major conference panel discussions; and ran its own program of panels in the exhibit area.

One day, the First Data panels' moderator was CNN commentator John Sununu, who took some time to learn about the industry before guiding the discussions. Mr. Sununu was chief of staff at the White House under President George Bush, who was bedeviled by his supposed lack of "the vision thing."

Another company that seems to have vision in spades is Verifone Inc., the Redwood City, Calif.-based supplier of point of sale .equipment.

Verifone's documentation includes a periodically updated "Company Fact Book," for the benefit of customers and shareholders alike, that concisely describes the corporate structure, the various markets, objectives, financial attributes, and brief biographies of chairman Hatim Tyabji and other top executives.

The fact book has a brief summary of "the Verifone philosophy," which is spelled out in more detail in a 48-page, multi-lingual pamphlet.

Among the tenets are "building an excellent company," "meeting the needs of its customers," "recognizing the importance of each individual," "fostering open communications," and "living and working ethically."

Verifone's fact book also includes a table listing the size of each market by retailer type and geography, and how much is left to be penetrated. Such data, no doubt, provide a useful reality check for Hypercom Inc. and other competitors.

There is more. Aiming for intellectual high ground, Verifone churns out white papers on hot or controversial topics at the rate of four to six a year.

Among the recent papers that came to the fore at the Chicago conference were "Considerations for On-Lme Debit Success in the U-S.," "The Coming Age of Smart Cards," and "EleCtronic Loyalty Programs."

The strategy seems to be paying off: Verifone is No. 1 in point of sale systems by a wide margin, and its long-term stockholders have made a bundle.

As for the industry's response, many of the people who showed up on Sept. 11, the day before the official opening of the bank card conference, attended a presentation on point of sale capabilities by Michael J. Shade, the Verifone marketing director whose career dates back to some of the earliest electronic funds transfer experiments in the 1970s.

A few hundred invitees also stayed several hours past the conference adjournment last Wednesday to attend what has become an annual Verifone-sponsored bonus seminar on merchant-related transaction issues. This year, the focus was on debit card acceptance and pertinent survey data commissioned from Payment Systems Inc. of Tampa, Fla.

Mr. Shade said it is in both Verifone's and the industry's interest to deliver wake-up calls.

Retailers have a problem, Mr. Shade told his Sunday audience, Demand is growing for various types of electronic payments, but existing cash registers can't handle them all. That's where Verifone's equipment and expertise come in.

Meanwhile, the merchant-servicing industry has consolidated, largely because of banks' exiting from the field, to the point where about 20 processors control 80% or more of the business.

"The only way to generate growth is to open vertical markets or steal business away," Mr. Shade said. "There are opportunities to steal, but it can't be by everybody doing the same things. It has to be by differentiating. The technology and capability are there today to allow you to differentiate."

"We are not just selling gray boxes any more," Mr. Shade said later in an interview. "It's a relationship with a solution. We have to convince our customer that we bring more to the table than just a product, and that we can be mutually successful.

"Sure, we know Hypercom and everybody else are going to see what's in the white papers. Hopefully, the word will get out that there are considerable intellectual resources underlying what we are doing."

Phoenix-based Hypercom has scored some points against Verifone. Orders have been strong for the T7P terminal with built-in printer, and Hypercom just reported $160 million in worldwide sales for the year ending June 30 - Verifone had $259 million in 1993 - and a 53% increase in the United States.

Hypercom has lagged in the philosophy department, but that may be about to change.

Its ABA conference handout included "An Executive Briefing for Merchant Acquirers, Electronic Payments Processors, and Authorizers."

The paper takes some swipes at Verifone's strategies and technological approaches and claims Hypercom is more advanced and forward-looking, and more attentive to customers' bottom lines.

Not coincidentally, Hypercom has hired the Wilson McHenry public relations agency to aid in its "vision" campaign.

The San Mateo, Calif., agency worked for Verifone until Verifone decided to bring the function in-house and hire its Wilson McHenry account executive, Beth Pampaloni.

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