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This article appears in the December 2009 issue of Cards&Payments.

The major payment card brands are pumping the market full of messages about why consumers should use plastic to pay for products and services. But as credit card issuers boost interest rates and fees to cover rising charge-off rates, consumers are becoming increasingly wary of credit, and this has put card advertising under the gun.

Now more than ever, Visa Inc., MasterCard Worldwide, American Express Co. and Discover Financial Services are attempting to connect with consumers through solid marketing and advertising to keep them loyal to their cards. To do this, they are focusing their advertising on their core strengths instead of rocking the boat.

"It's getting back to basics," says Megan Bramlette, managing associate at Westbury, N.Y.-based Auriemma Consulting Group. "That's going to be the theme for 2010, focusing on what [the networks] do really, really well–what their brand identity is and what they're best known for."

Though their marketing and advertising budgets have been cut, the card brands cannot afford to alienate potential or existing customers. Indeed, their challenge is to overcome the industry's black eye, as many consumers blame the financial
industry for the current economic crisis.

"The consumer sentiment is different now," Bramlette says. "People are wary of credit cards now and, more importantly, people are wary of debt."

For their part, promoters of plastic are focusing their attention on the positives of card use, and not the negatives.

Visa is riding the momentum from its new, globally focused Go campaign launched in March. The goal, to consolidate its message globally, focuses on how consumers can use Visa cards to make the most of everyday things they might want to do, such as take their children to an aquarium.

The campaign brought together Visa's branding message worldwide, says Kevin Burke, Visa global head of advertising.  Consolidating the message helps Visa create synergies and efficiencies because it can use one voice, one concept in multiple markets, Burke says.

"The invitation to 'go' is universal. It's understood in almost any culture around the world, and the bedrock of the brand is universal acceptance," he says. 
As part of its "Go" campaign, Visa in November launched ads and marketing to support its sponsorship of the Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver. The ads will run locally in such markets as Russia, China and Latin America.

 Ed Kountz, a senior analyst with Forrester Research, says Visa's effort to make its message consistent worldwide is a smart one.

"It's very much a global market right now," he says. "There's no doubt that areas of growth are universal, and it's important to be able to display ads that work in Bombay as well as Boston."

MasterCard is holding steady with its comprehensive "Priceless" campaign. The much-copied "Priceless" story and tag line, launched in 1997, has permeated the media and continues to support MasterCard's credit and debit products around the world.

The Priceless tag has developed into a full-fledged offering on MasterCard's Web site, which gives information on special offers and promotions and showcases all the brand's Priceless television ads.

Market observers long have lauded MasterCard's Priceless campaign, mainly because of its ubiquity and efficiency.

"MasterCard doesn't have to spend money on new campaigns," says Bramlette. "There's a million different ways to look at the concept; it can be easily targeted to any niche market, and it can be constantly refreshed."

One of the latest Priceless promotions features a Priceless Picks application for Apple Inc.'s iPhone, one of the en vogue ways to reach today's consumers.

Launched in July, Priceless Picks for the iPhone uses GPS search technology to help cardholders locate restaurants, coffee shops and other locales. An expansion of the online version of Priceless Picks, the application also enables consumers to share information about their favorite places to visit, dine or shop.

"Having a strong global consumer brand is a true competitive differentiator for us, and we will continue innovating and finding the consumer where they are," says Amy Fuller, MasterCard group executive, worldwide consumer marketing.

Meanwhile, Discover Financial Services maintains it has made no major cuts in its marketing budget and is on pace to continue keeping the focus on its signature 5% Cash Back bonus program.

Focus On Value
Discover's advertising and marketing focus illustrates what cardholders "get back" from the cash-back bonus rewards. The brand's ads tell stories of everyday emotional and material things cardholders receive when using their cash rewards, such as using the cash reward to buy a video game console so a family can play games together.

"We were looking to reflect what it is our cardholders really value when they use the Discover card," says Larisa Drake, Discover vice president of brand communications. Discover used focus groups to help determine the ad content, Drake says. Its integrated campaign includes broadcast and print ads.

Discover will continue to support the cash-back rewards feature in its advertising and marketing heading into 2010, Drake says. "We're really focused on our customer and what it is they value, and right now that's the 5% cash-back bonus," she says. "We're giving people a reason why it pays to Discover."

While credit card companies such as Discover, MasterCard and Visa focus on their core benefits to cardholders, with MasterCard and Visa also focusing on promoting debit to meet the demands of consumers leery of credit and debt, American Express recently launched a barrage of advertising specifically promoting the use of its traditional charge cards over credit and debit.

In September, AmEx launched an ad campaign highlighting why it believes charge cards are better than other payment methods, providing a prime example of how companies are relying more on their traditional products. The campaign's theme "Don't Take Chances, Take Charge" encourages consumers to consider
carefully how they pay for purchases.

The print and television ads tout the benefits of paying off AmEx charge cards each month, a move apparently designed to attract consumers who have moved to pay-as-you-go debit cards from revolving-credit products to reduce debt.

AmEx says it did not create the ads to attack other payment methods. "However, we are showcasing the reasons why charge is the smarter way to pay versus other payment devices including debit," a spokesperson tells Cards&Payments sister publication CardLine in an e-mail statement. "We want consumers to see how they can take control of their finances and still stay out of debt while making their money work harder for them than other cards may allow."

Specifically, AmEx contends in its ads that charge cards help consumers build credit histories and that not all cards offer protections or valuable rewards.

The charge card is a proposition that appeals to a lot of consumers affected by the down economy, Bramlette says. "Charge is going to [continue to] play a role in the payments market going forward," she contends.

Market Challenges
Though the card brands are focusing on their core strengths to reach their consumer bases, they still face a challenging market. Credit card issuers and the card brands all have suffered from the backlash of the credit crunch.

"The card brands have not been helped by the events of the last year, and there is an element of how heavily do you want to blow your own horn" with marketing and advertising, says Kountz.

Still, consumers will use plastic, and they eventually may migrate back to their old habits, one observer believes.

"I don't think Christmas is going to get canceled," says Dennis Moroney, research director at TowerGroup Inc. Consumers will come around to use credit again once the economy starts to improve, he says.

"Consumers will want to spend again, and not through a debit card once the amount starts to get above $100," Moroney says. "They will look for the comfort and security to revolve if they need to."

While card brands focus on their core strengths, Kountz predicts the consumer mentality regarding card advertising will change, and the brands will have to adjust.

"One thing we'll see moving forward is consumers turning to ads less for information," he says. "It will become more of a challenge to reinvigorate the brands, but we're not there yet. In the new credit world, you need to be able to speak to your consumer base, but you also have to expand."  CP

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