David Blecken
Jan 16, 2018

Behind Visa's vision of a cardless Winter Games

With PyeongChang 2018 just around the corner, the sponsor is making big bets on wearable technology and sound to stand out as a financial services innovator at the event.

Visa will operate cardless payment systems in partnership with Lotte at PyeongChang 2018
Visa will operate cardless payment systems in partnership with Lotte at PyeongChang 2018

The future of cryptocurrencies may be uncertain, but their rise in public consciousness is a reminder to companies like Visa that change happens fast in the financial sector. The brand is by far the most used payment system, with more than 320 million cardholders globally, but sees innovation as a priority in order to hold onto that position.

One way it’s doing that is to move away from cards. Indeed, in a recent interview, Visa’s Japan marketing head noted that many people see Visa as a card company while it sees itself as a payment technology company. Frederique Covington, CMO for Asia-Pacific, bills PyeongChang as “the first cardless Games”.

As a lead sponsor, in conjunction with Lotte, Visa will encourage people to pay through wearable technology, which includes stickers, badges in the form of a collectable pin, and gloves that activate transactions through waving. “It’s a new form factor for people to understand Visa is innovative,” she said.

The point is to make the action not just “frictionless” but fun—something not widely associated with credit cards. Fast transactions are also designed to improve relationships with partners such as merchants.

Visa’s move into a more free-flowing environment where physical cards are optional raises new considerations around the company’s branding. Covington said sound is a key element in future-proofing the brand in the digital space and especially as transactions start to happen via smart speakers. The company has invested heavily in developing a distinctive sound that will be used to mark the completion of a payment as well as featuring in advertising. Visa is also looking at developing its own mobile vibration system for users of facial recognition payments.

“It’s important for the brand to have an opportunity to render itself so consumers know we’re here,” Covington said. While Visa’s branded sound is simple, creating it was apparently not. “We had around 200 sounds and narrowed it down one by one, in a way to be mindful of different cultures,” Covington explained.

“We didn’t want it to be an advertising gimmick. It had to sit with our brand values and we have to work with our partners so they can integrate it. It couldn’t be too long or too loud—there were a lot of complex considerations. People hear sound at different levels. It’s like another language. What may sound pleasant in one culture may not be pleasant in another, so we had to test hundreds of sounds in different markets.”

The aim is to make users feel secure as much as it is to put the brand’s stamp on an action. “As transactions become dematerialised, you need reassurance that it’s been processed. What happens when you can pay by blinking—you think, is this a company I trust? Did it happen securely? A key question we are asking is how will people know all the benefits of the brand as the transaction becomes shorter and shorter.”

Frederique Covington

Looking ahead to the Winter Games and to Tokyo 2020, Covington said the biggest change Visa has undergone as a sponsor is to become experiential. “It used to be that brands sponsored events, put their name on something and gained awareness,” she said. “From a consumer perspective that’s not enough.” Instead, the sponsor should do something that lifts the experience of the event.

Aside from facilitating payments at PyeongChang, Visa wants to give staff who cannot attend an experience of the Games. It will offer a mobile VR experience in the spirit of Google Cardboard whereby users can put themselves in the position of the athletes.

“When you’re in sponsor mode, you’re thinking about awareness, but when you’re in experiential mode you’re looking to engage your employees,” Covington said. “If brands think in this way they can create much greater impact and greater engagement.”

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