At Winter Olympics, Visa Has No Competition

Article excerpt

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. …