Card Associations Spend Big Bucks to Score Goals

By Coulton, Antoinette; Kutler, Jeffrey | American Banker, July 17, 1998 | Go to article overview

Card Associations Spend Big Bucks to Score Goals


Coulton, Antoinette, Kutler, Jeffrey, American Banker


Visa has football, thoroughbred racing, the Olympics, and, as of last week, the Nascar circuit.

Both bank card associations have pieces of baseball. And both, obviously, can't get enough of sports.

Alongside other high-visibility brands like Coca-Cola, McDonald's, and Nike, the bank card groups-and to a lesser extent American Express and Discover-have sought the attention of the world's billions by making sports sponsorships an integral part of their advertising and promotion strategies.

They spend millions of dollars for the rights-$40 million to $50 million in the case of the Olympics, which is an extreme example-and multiples beyond that to maximize their marketing mileage.

They may be contributing to and perhaps profiting from a sports- craziness that disturbs certain social commentators.

But it's all business, supported by the card associations' thousands of member bankers around the world who care about community standards and are not generally inclined toward profligacy.

Mava K. Heffler, MasterCard International's senior vice president of global promotions and sponsorships, professes not to be too much of a fan. As the MasterCard ads associated with the just-concluded World Cup in France would attest, she sees no shame in associating the company's image with the public's passions.

"Sponsorship with MasterCard is not emotional," said Ms. Heffler. "It's all about cold, calculated business-building."

One calculation is that during a typical World Cup match the fleeting glimpses of MasterCard's strategically placed billboards added up to more than seven minutes of international exposure.

All the games were shown in the United States on ABC or ESPN television, and portions were "brought to you commercial-free by MasterCard," the announcers would say.

All the returns are not yet in from France '98. But from 1995 to the end of Euro '96, the European soccer championship around which MasterCard built a brand-awareness campaign in the United Kingdom, unaided consumer awareness of MasterCard jumped from 19%, to 30%-and 38% in the major U.K. cities where the matches were held.

Visa, meanwhile, has gotten a lift in transaction volumes, market shares, and other consumer survey indicators after every Olympics it has sponsored since 1988. Its analysts say these were not coincidences.

Ms. Heffler was quick to point out that this is not all scientific. Evaluations are becoming increasingly subjective as sports, or what is known in the trade as event marketing, blend more and more into any and all aspects of promotional strategy.

In Visa advertising, for example, an Olympics commercial may be just one of many on the "everywhere you want to be" theme. MasterCard's sports imagery is creeping in to its current series of "precious moments," which it is hoping will help close the market-share gap with No. 1 Visa.

"It's not just what you bought," Ms. Heffler told a press seminar in Paris last month. "I can measure the exposure of signage, for example, but it's what you do with the sponsorship that counts. The more integrated it is, the harder it is to quantify" the benefit.

Events are "experiential," Ms. Heffler said, which is important to ensuring that brands are "not just seen and heard, but experienced at multiple points."

All sides seem to agree that the return on investment is there. At least they vote that way with their dollars.

Bob Heussner, executive vice president of Advantage International, a consulting firm that works with MasterCard, said all sponsorship fees worldwide have almost doubled since 1993, to $17.4 billion. No aspect of marketing is growing faster.

Citing data from IEG Sponsorship Report of Chicago, Mr. Heussner said two-thirds of North American sponsorship spending of $6.8 billion this year will be for sports. (Arts, entertainment, festivals, and causes are the other categories. …

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