September 30, 2004, 12:00 AM

Safe Shopping

The card companies shift their online promotions tomessages about secure buying.

Few companies have the reputation or the experience with brand marketing that can top that of the major credit card companies. Think Visa`s "everywhere you want it to be," American Express` "Don`t leave home without it" or the often mimicked MasterCard`s "Priceless" campaign.

But when it comes to promoting the use of their cards for online shopping, the card companies are abandoning the pure branding play for messages that focus on security. With a number of studies showing that consumers` greatest reluctance to shop online comes from fear that their card information will fall into the wrong hands, card issuers and associations are working hard these days to assure consumers that it is safe to make purchases on the Internet using their credit cards. To accomplish that goal, the card companies are focusing serious attention and spending serious dollars on marketing and working on developing closer ties with certain retailers.

A simple strategy

Indeed, when Visa and MasterCard executives talk about their future marketing campaigns for online shoppers, much of their time is spent describing campaigns to promote Verified by Visa and MasterCard`s SecureCode programs. Even the nation`s largest credit card issuer—Citibank—which does not participate in the security programs of the two associations, is concentrating much of its online marketing campaigns on promoting its own payment security program.

The card companies` strategies are simple: customers who feel secure will use their cards to shop on the Internet more often, generating greater revenue for the issuers of the cards, who get a cut of each transaction. "When we started advertising the use of our card to make Internet purchases back in 1997, we relied on basic brand messages. Now as the Internet has evolved, we`ve started to promote the concept of security," says Gerry Sweeney, senior vice president, product and incentive marketing at Visa USA.

And since the vast majority of purchases on the Internet are made with credit cards, the Internet world holds a lot of promise for the associations and card issuers. "We see the growth opportunities with Internet shopping and we realize how important it is to promote the fact that our card can be used safely to make purchases," says Amy Radin, executive vice president for Citi Card e-business.

But while card associations are promoting the concept of security over pure branding, the two worlds can often merge. Take a recent MasterCard campaign. It is relying on its well-known "Priceless" campaign to illustrate the safety of online shopping. In one print ad there is an image of a bulldog—itself a symbol of security. The ad copy talks about the cost of buying a personalized dog tag online and the cost of buying a dog dish online. But the value of personalized protection so that the consumer is safe to shop for these items online? "Priceless," the tag line says.

Online or offline?

MasterCard is placing these ads in general consumer magazines, including People, Sports Illustrated and Good Housekeeping. In the near future, it intends to run TV slots. Separate from the consumer magazines, MasterCard is promoting its SecureCode program to retailers through trade magazines.

With SecureCode, and similarly with Verified by Visa, financial institutions that issue cards get their customers to sign up for the program. When cardholders register, they receive a password. Consumers who shop at a retail location that participates in one of the security programs receive a pop-up screen at check-out. They use this pop-up screen to enter their passwords. If the password entered matches the one on file with the card issuer, the retailer and card issuer know that the person making the purchase is the same person to whom the card was issued. Retailers then have no liability if the transaction goes bad.

But while MasterCard is focusing much of its own efforts through print and later TV advertising, it is relying on its members—the financial institutions that issue its cards—to promote SecureCode on the Internet. It is providing marketing materials to those members so that they can place them on Internet sites, including many of their own web sites. "We expect to hit a wide variety of vehicles to get our message across," says Tom Maxwell, MasterCard director of e-business. "We`ll focus mostly on print ads now, but our members will be conducting most of their promotions on the Internet."

As far as working with specific retailers to promote SecureCode, MasterCard has signed up a number of retailers that offer discounts to consumers who sign up for SecureCode through them.

In contrast to MasterCard`s print and TV ads, Visa has been moving toward a greater use of Internet-based promotions, such as putting advertisements on shopping and search sites. "We want to get to consumers at the point where they are likely to actually make a purchase," says Visa`s Sweeney.

The motivators

In choosing its message, Visa examined what motivates consumers to make purchases on the Internet—convenience and the ability to easily comparison shop. Then, Visa looked at what constrains online purchases—security fears.

Among the messages that Visa is trying to communicate through its advertising campaign is the safety of Verified by Visa as well as its ease of use and the assurances that there is zero liability to consumers whose card number is used for fraudulent purchases. "We looked at what consumers told us and we found that we needed to explain what we`re doing to prevent card fraud as well as explain the remediation we have in place in the event that something does go wrong," Sweeney says.

Like MasterCard, Visa is trying to get both the banks that issue its card and the retailers that accept it to promote Verified by Visa at their web sites and in other customer communications, such as bank statements. Among the retailers that have worked with Visa to promote the service are Wal-Mart Stores Inc., 1-800-Flowers.com, J.C. Penney Co. Inc. and CompuUSA Inc.

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