CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/MARKETING CREDIT CARDS; Can brand advertising win the credit-card wars?

Hard-pressed credit-card issuers are rethinking ad tactics, Richard Cook says

Hard-pressed credit-card issuers are rethinking ad tactics, Richard Cook


Forget, for a moment, the exasperated snarl that you and I know would

accompany any attempt to buy fresh produce from any market anywhere with

a credit card, and dwell instead on the aspirational nature of the

current Mastercard TV work - the flat, the clothes, the beautiful

people, even the feelgood punchline. Never mind the reality, feel the

brand values. This is a campaign dripping in them from the tip of the

lobster’s claw to the stems of the bouquet the ad’s young swain brings

back for his partner.

Last week, however, Campaign revealed that the US-based Mastercard was

to review its UK advertising arrangements, ‘in the light of changes that

are taking place within the credit-card market’. The only good news for

Publicis, the agency that created this paean to the brand, is that the

review is likely to conclude that corporate branding in the credit-card

market can seldom go far enough.

The review also neatly coincides with the absorption of Access into

Mastercard which will result in the phasing out of the Access name

altogether. Rick Bendel, Publicis’s joint chief executive, has strong

links with the Access brand which go back to the early 80s when he was

at Geers Gross.

This week, Simons Palmer Clemmow Johnson launches, with the aid of a

claimed pounds 30 million budget over the next 18 months, Goldfish, the

latest in a long line of affinity cards that have helped reshape the

credit- and charge-card markets and force the major players to

concentrate on their marketing and advertising propositions.

Goldfish is backed by a series of investors, including the US bank, HFC,

and British Gas. The card will allow customers to collect bonus points,

which can subsequently be used as payment against British Gas bills. It

is a formula we have become increasingly familiar with - the Royal Bank

of Scotland and the NSPCC launched the first affinity card in the UK

back in 1990.

The challenge is to create a brand to stand out from the clutter -

there’s now one credit card for every two men, women and children in the

UK. Affinity cards represent about 5 per cent of the total cards in

issue, according to the Credit Card Research Group, and the sector is

growing fast. Competition in the UK is already more intense than in the

US. Across the Atlantic, the two largest credit-card issuers, Visa and

Mastercard, both owned by consortia of banks, have managed to prevent

their member banks offering other credit cards. In the UK there are no

such restrictions, while interest rates for consumers, and so profit

margins for card issuers, are considerably higher.

The result is that no-one knows exactly how many affinity cards there

are in the UK, but certainly there are more than 500 and the market is

growing all the time. Hence the need for a little rethinking about the

way the big boys present their brands.

‘What we are trying to do with Goldfish is to create a brand that people

want to buy into - not just a credit card but a whole financial services

brand,’ the Simons Palmer chairman, Paul Simons, explains. ‘That is the

opportunity in this market. The credit-card market has been unlike any

other consumer goods area in that the brand personality, with the

exception of American Express, has just not been important, and

Mastercard and Visa are in danger of being seen as fuddy-duddy.’

That is what is now changing. Even American Express, which had invested

significantly in brand advertising, has recognised the need to go

further. In June, the company announced the launch of the first single

global campaign in its history, spending more than pounds 20 million in

the UK alone to get the message across that the company is not the

operator of a charge card, but is a multi-product service brand.

‘The credit and charge market is changing so rapidly,’ Brad Jakeman,

international management supervisor at Ogilvy and Mather Worldwide,

which handles the American Express account, says. ‘Our new advertising

reflected the fundamental change in the business. In 1995, for example,

American Express launched more new products than in the whole of the

previous decade.

‘We have tried to take the high ground and move away from those cards

that seek to define themselves only by their reward programme, or from

Visa and Mastercard which have tended to promote functional attributes.

The other cards are achieving parity of coverage and Mastercard and Visa

are finding that they have no emotional equity invested in their


Of the Visa and Mastercard issuers, Barclaycard has made the most

successful brand investment. The 16 BMP DDB executions in the current

series - which features Rowan Atkinson as an inept special agent - have

ticked off important points of difference such as coverage, insurance,

medical help and a link-up with Cellnet.

‘The challenge for Mastercard and Visa is to articulate a brand which

the individual suppliers can underpin with their own offer,’ explains

Laurie Olson, chairman of the credit-card marketing specialist, City

Financial Marketing. But as some of the Mastercard issuers have clearly

discovered, when the brand support is missing, the onus is on them to

come up with ever more tempting offers to woo consumers.

‘An increasingly educated and discerning consumer is quite able to

determine which are genuine offers and which are not,’ Olson says. ‘Of

course, you need a real point of difference from your competitors, but

you also need some brand personality to work with.’

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