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
‘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.’