June 23, 2011, 2:50 PM

Is the mobile wallet the new Marlboro man?

Can the manly mobile wallet outperform the feminine e-purse?

Lead Photo

Google Wallet is hoping to make headway in the realm of mobile payments.

Don’t misinterpret this, but the mobile wallet may be the new Marlboro man.

Marlboro cigarettes were marketed to women until the 1950s. It’s a famous story in advertising circles how the Marlboro man came to be. Back then, filtered cigarettes were viewed more as a woman’s choice. But, unhappy with sales, Philip Morris, the tobacco firm selling Marlboro, did a 180-degree spin and made Marlboro cigarettes super-masculine, as best exemplified by the cowboy image of the Marlboro man. It was a success.

Jump ahead in time to the 1990s and 2000s. Electronic purses were the “next big thing” in payments that would displace cash. Well, that didn’t turn out to be. E-purses contained reloadable, stored value on a chip in a card. A decade later suddenly this payment mechanism is morphing from ladylike to manly: The electronic purse has become the mobile wallet. Google Wallet and Isis are a couple of examples of today’s mobile wallets, though neither are widely available yet.

But it takes more than a brand name to position a product for success. In 2005, as a writer at Card Technology, a defunct smart card magazine, I wrote about electronic purses and why they failed to displace cash on a greater scale. What I found was that electronic purses, especially in Europe where they had the greatest consumer adoption, faced three problems. One was reloading the purse required going to an ATM. Mobile wallets seem to have resolved that issue by using the phone’s wireless connectivity.

Another problem was that the e-purse was not protected by a personal identification number. If the card was lost or stolen, so was the value held by the e-purse. Today’s smartphones can be password-protected.

The third was difficulty tracking balances inside an e-purse. Without a user interface on the card, consumers had a tough time knowing how much money they still had on the card. With a mobile wallet the consumer can see how much value remains in their mobile wallet as easily as they can figure out how much cash is in their back-pocket wallet.

Today’s mobile wallets may offer fundamental improvements from their e-purse ancestors. But the big question remains unanswered: Will consumers care enough to use them?

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