With e-commerce booming in the wake of the pandemic, digital payments will be even more important in 2021. Lynne Biggar, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at VISA, speaks to WARC’s Anna Hamill for WARC’s Marketer’s Toolkit 2021 about the digital commerce revolution, supporting small businesses, and hyper-targeting. 

What are some of the key trends emerging from the upheaval of this past year that you think will define the financial services category and VISA's direction in 2021?

The amount of digital evolution that's happened is decades worth crammed into months, basically. VISA certainly is a part of all of that as well, given the space we play in as a payments technology company. 

Number one is the transition to digital. When we think about that, we need to think about it both with the Western world in mind as well as more developing markets, which hadn't (previously) been as focused or evolved on e-commerce. The second is really a move away from cash towards what is perceived to be more secure payment types, both by consumers and by merchants. 

On the digital front, using Latin America as a point of reference, digital payments usage was not very high. But millions of VISA card holders – during just the first couple months of the pandemic – were first-time users of e-commerce. This was by necessity. It was about needing to be able to get basic supplies for the family during a lockdown, navigating through how to do that and feeling comfortable that when you did transact online, your payment was going to be safe and secure. That is a really important trend: (e-commerce) was a way for many people around the world to get access to basic supplies in their homes… The evolution of digital commerce, particularly in more developing markets, is a trend that will continue.

Key insights:

  • The acceleration of digital commerce and the move away from cash as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic are likely to define the payments category in 2021. 
  • By leaning into support for small businesses, VISA has been able to educate merchants and assist them to get online transactions up and running. 
  • VISA is focusing on hyper-targeting, specifically with a focus on in-home media and digital channels.

On contactless payments, that has accelerated dramatically. One in four transactions over the VISA network were tapped before the COVID-19 pandemic, but in the first part of the pandemic that went down to one in three, so a dramatic increase in contactless payments. Contactless payments grew over 40%, and also significantly in the US which is a large market. That was enabled by a lot of work we did to help consumers understand that it's quick to tap to pay, but it's also safer to tap to pay.

We enabled merchants to better understand the technology they already had, to ensure consumers could do transactions in a purely ‘touch-free’ way. In Europe, we worked with governments and merchants to raise contactless transaction limits – if they were at a low dollar amount, they're now at a much higher dollar amount. A lot of things moved together to enable that acceleration and VISA has been a big part of that.

These changes are happening very quickly. How is VISA leveraging them to grow brand awareness and penetration?

Given the size and scale of our brand and our ability to get messages out in a meaningful way, we pivoted a lot at the beginning of the pandemic to informational messages… As it relates to e-commerce: how you can feel confident that your online transaction is safe from fraud – this has been a real consumer perception – or that a touchless physical transaction is not only fast, but safe and secure? We've really leveraged the scale and scope of our brand to be very informational.

We've also done a lot on the value of supporting small businesses, and put our money where our mouth is in terms of providing tools, capabilities and connections to partnerships for small businesses so they can transact online. Something like 50% of small businesses before the pandemic didn't have the ability to sell their services or goods online. Knowing that, we created places for small businesses to go to so that they could stay open when shops were closed. Now that shops are opening again in many parts of the world, they can continue to build or accelerate their business.

What changes did you make to your own internal processes to navigate that volatility, and what are you anticipating will become permanent in 2021 as the situation continues?

One of the things that we quickly learned was that consumer sentiment changes by the day. We have been doing a lot of simple, daily, ongoing polling of specific audiences just to make sure our messages are resonating… because the world is reacting to this ever-changing world in which we live. We've done a lot of that around some of our sponsorship assets, and really ensuring that the way we're using those assets to get out messages which resonate with consumers and also that they are comfortable with brands being associated with those sponsorships. 

From an agency perspective, a couple of months ago we embarked upon a Global Creative Agency Of Record review. Less about the pandemic, and much more about how we're evolving our brand and our strategy going forward. Embarking on something like that, in the middle of a pandemic… somebody might go “you're doing what?”, but it's a really important time for us not just to be thinking about the short-term and how we react to the current situation, but also how we think about Visa and our brand going forward. On the surface it might seem a little counterintuitive, but it actually is pretty intuitive.

We are really working with our partners – sponsorship partners, and broader partners – to think about how we can activate these sponsorships in new and different ways. We had been working with IFundWomen, which supports women-owned small businesses, and we had been doing a lot of great work around monetary support for specific small business owners. We've just made that entire thing virtual and it's taken on a life of its own. We've really been, frankly, looking at everything we do and asking, “how can we do these things differently now, given the opportunities we have in this new digital world?” rather than being hindered by it.

Lynne Biggar, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer, VISA

Mobile, e-commerce, voice... these are all threats to plastic cards. How does your marketing change in response to all of these different channels now becoming payment touchpoints?

Close to three years ago, we launched multi-sensory branding elements – sight, sound, and animation – in anticipation of this evolution of the world. I don't think that, in many markets, the physical piece of plastic is going away any time soon. It's still a rendering that we know and understand, and that many people use. Obviously, we can put our physical piece of plastic in our digital wallet, or we can embed our credentials online. But in every case, the foundation of that is the physical piece of plastic. 

But we're ready for that eventuality based on our multi-sensory branding. When that’s the right way to express our brand, it will get expressed that way. The ‘Internet Of Things’ is evolving, payments can be embedded more in everyday things (such as) watches, refrigerators and cars… We've been building out our ability to actually leverage those multi-sensory brand elements, so I don't look at it in any way as a tragedy, I look at it as an opportunity. 

The VISA brand is based on this notion of trust and globality. You can embed your credentials with an online retailer that you don't know, or you might have never been to. They don't know you, but what connects you is that sense of trust in VISA. The trust is linked to a brand. We're really benefiting from that sense of trust and globality, we can connect buyers and sellers in different parts of the globe. The connection point is that knowledge and awareness of VISA, and what it stands for, I think is something that will continue to work to our benefit, no matter the form factor.

VISA is a major player in the sponsorship space, and an Olympics sponsor as well. How are you planning for so much volatility in that space, given that events are largely still on hold?

We are a sponsor of the Olympics and also the National Football League (NFL), and women's football in Europe… Certainly, we've had to think a lot about how we evolve our sponsorships in light of the current situation. Our sponsorships are really a whole 360 degree surround – it's not just about doing an advertising campaign, although that's a part of what we do. It's also our clients which are able to leverage the asset through their communications with their consumers. We have a whole operational component of what we do on-site related to payment innovation and enablement. We have great opportunities with Team Visa, which is 80 or so athletes that we support to get to the Olympics. 

We've had to stay very flexible, we've had to think differently about how we go to market, and we've had to think differently about activation. For example in Canada, VISA is the sponsor of the Toronto International Film Festival, which just took place virtually. We created a ‘drive-in movie’ opportunity and support for local small businesses. We're doing the same in the US with the National Football League, and really using that as an opportunity to rally around local small business support. We've created new partnerships that we hadn't had before (COVID-19), particularly around small business support – for example, partnerships in some markets with Shopify. 

With online media consumption and consumers' habits changing, and how financial services category is going to be impacted, how are you adapting your media investment plan for the next 12 months and beyond?

Before the pandemic, I never had time to watch a streaming show, now I’m binging everything. As consumers, and as marketers, we've all seen a lot of changes and evolution in how media is being consumed. Obviously, digital matters a tremendous amount. Really targeted messages in key home-based media is much more relevant right now than out-of-home media and things like that. We are, in every case, adapting our messaging to be hyper-targeted and much more digitally focused.

The one thing that is still very prevalent is live sports. VISA is obviously very involved in live sports – we're definitely leveraging the scale of audiences in live sports with our NFL partnerships to get out messages about supporting local small businesses… There's a lot of great new opportunities for us to be thinking about what we do, and leveraging what we have traditionally done in new and different ways. 

One thing in general that has happened during the pandemic is (realising) we need to be always thinking very locally. What's happening in Germany right now in terms of consumer sentiment and the ability to transact is very different than what's happening in Canada, which is very different to what's happening in Mexico, which is very different to what's happening in Thailand. Being really, locally-driven and really locally-aware about current market conditions is how we’re thinking about evolving our planning and media strategy.

You mentioned hyper targeting – how are you thinking about the challenge of doing hyper-targeted media in a world where, for example, the cookie may not exist?

We’re obviously working through that. A lot of us in the marketing world are watching carefully what is happening. We feel pretty good about it. VISA is really a mass brand – digital payments are something that we aspire for the entire world to be able to take advantage of, and there’s trillions and trillions of opportunities out there that continue to do that. While we are, and have been, very focused on targeting some of our messages, there's other broader messages that we still can get out to much larger audiences. We'll adapt as we need to adapt. We have a lot of really smart people internally that are very focused on understanding the evolution of how we will be able to target and how Visa can ensure we're continuing to get the right messages to the right people at the right time.