It looks like business as usual for Visa Inc., which has sponsored the Olympic Games since 1986: When the summer games begin on Friday in Beijing, the name of the world's largest payment network will be displayed everywhere from the tourist information kiosks at the airport to the automated teller machines at the venues.
But behind the scenes, Visa, which went public in March, is overhauling its marketing strategy to meet new shareholder demands for return on investment, something that historically has been tough to demonstrate specifically in marketing.
Since he joined Visa in November, Antonio Lucio, its global chief marketing officer, has presided over a companywide reorganization of marketing operations. He is consolidating Visa's relationships with advertising agencies and has dropped a big-ticket sponsorship, the Rugby World Cup.
"We have as a strong priority, now that we are a publicly traded company, to deliver shareholder value … so we have a very rigorous approach in place," Mr. Lucio said in an interview last month.
He would not quantify Visa's target return on marketing investments, but he said it would be gauged by "transaction volume for our total system, growth in acquisitions and retention for our customer banks, and … brand equity indicators," or top-of-wallet status, for the network's cards.
Last week, on a conference call to discuss earnings for its fiscal third quarter, which ended June 30, Visa said it expects to have spent about $1 billion on marketing and advertising by the end of this fiscal year.
In response to analysts' questions, Joseph Saunders, the San Francisco company's chairman and chief executive officer, said it was still trying to "develop a more normalized cadence in our marketing" expenditures.
Red Gillen, a senior analyst at Marsh & McLennan Cos.' Celent LLC, said most public companies have a difficult time clearly justifying their marketing budgets to shareholders. "If you spend a million dollars on a TV ad … return on [that] investment is always a difficult thing to prove," he said.
Now that Visa is publicly traded, "people are going to be scrutinizing how their marketing dollars are spent," Mr. Gillen said, and the company is "going to be more guarded about how much money they're going to throw around."
Visa's profitability appears to have alleviated some analysts' concerns about its high marketing budget. Daniel R. Perlin, an analyst at Wachovia Corp.'s securities unit, wrote in a note to investors last week, "Despite the beginning of advertising for the Olympics, [Visa's] margins were above expectations."
Mr. Lucio, who joined Visa from PepsiCo Inc., said that even though Visa's customers are banks, it needs to sustain high consumer visibility.
"We are a ubiquitous brand that requires a ubiquitous presence," he said. "We grow our business, and we grow the business of our customer banks, by increasing transactions … , so the role of our communications strategy is aimed at encouraging increased usage of our brand and, importantly, to suggest to consumers new usage of our brand."
Hence big-ticket sponsorships remain a fundamental part of Visa's advertising strategy. Two years ago Visa landed the sponsorship of soccer's World Cup tournament, which had belonged to MasterCard Inc. since 1990. In the United States Visa also sponsors the National Football League and Nascar.
But Mr. Lucio acknowledged that not all sponsorships are worth continued investment. In April, Visa dropped the Rugby World Cup, which it had sponsored since 1995.
"Under the previous association model, if a couple of banks around the globe agreed to do something like that [sponsorship], we would just do it," Mr. Lucio said. "This time around we went through the process, and we decided that it was time to let it go because the returns were not going to be there, given the limited number of countries."
He said he expects the reorganization to be completed within "the next month or so." A large part of his efforts involved moving Visa from the regional associations, each with its own marketing strategy and operation, to a more centralized "global" model.
The job of buying ad time and space for Visa, previously handled by four agencies, was consolidated in Omnicom Group Inc.'s OMD Worldwide, "and that has provided significant savings that will be reinvested," Mr. Lucio said.
He said he plans to have one firm take over all other aspects of Visa's advertising. "Right now we have four agencies doing work for our different regions around the world from three different agency network groups." Those three groups have bid on a master contract. Once a winner is picked, Mr. Lucio said, "the different regions of the world will be able to choose, within that group, the agency partner that will deliver the most comprehensive line of services after their need."
Visa is on track to fulfill its sponsorship goals this year, Mr. Lucio said.
"By the time the Olympic Games are over, we will have a very clear indication of results, and, yes, we are expecting to meet every single one of our targets," he said.