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Visa plays a new card game

Rituparna Chatterjee in New Delhi | July 06, 2005

The day breaks behind the hills in the rural backdrop of Rajasthan. A little girl trots towards the village bazaar, as if she wants to be the first customer of the day.

Folk musicians, pot sellers, vendors selling everything from vegetables to colours, and a menacing bull complete the setting. As the little girl wades through the herds of goats and early morning shoppers, she passes a foreign tourist and his guide.

Is the tourist Hollywood star Richard Gere? The girl has no idea, neither does she care. For her, the bird seller is the star of the moment. But Gere is curious about what the girl is doing.

She hands the bird seller all her pocket money to buy five birds. "My brother is going on a journey today. I want to bring him good fortune," she says. The bird seller replies,  "But there's only enough for one bird."

The girl's face falls. Gere is still watching her. The guide explains, "If you free the birds, you give good luck. More birds, more good luck." As the girl settles for what she can afford and proceeds to set the solitary bird free, Gere decides to surprise her with a special gift.

He flashes his Visa credit card to the bird seller. The bird seller grins mischievously. Cut to the girl who is about to release the bird. Much to her surprise, doves are all over the sky.

The girl's brother ,who's seated on a camel, begins his journey. As the girl looks around for an explanation, Gere looks the other way, pretending that he had nothing to do with the occurrence. Visa card's baseline, "All it takes" envelopes the screen.

The 90-second commercial, made by BBDO Clemenger (Australia), hit television screens in June 2005. Santanu Mukherjee, country manager, South Asia, Visa International, says, "The ad aims at providing extraordinary surprises to ordinary everyday situations."

Adds Danny Searle, creative director, BBDO Clemenger, Australia, which is the agency responsible for the Visa campaign, "Unlike other financial ads, the Gere commercial is not materialistic. There is a strong sense of selflessness."

Why is Visa, which is all about money in various forms, showing shades of altruism? That too when it's in a business that's all about money. Globally, Visa and Mastercard compete for every inch of the payment gateway space.

However, in India, Visa, which entered the market in the early-1980s, is ahead of its arch rival. "Visa has a greater market share as it entered the Indian market several years before Mastercard," says an industry expert. But Indian customers are not worried about market shares.

Parag Rao, marketing head, credit cards, HDFC Bank, says, "Indian customers do not really see any difference between Mastercard and Visa." But the Indian banking industry agrees that Visa has more logos on credit cards than Mastercard.

In the case of HDFC Bank, which has 1.5 million credit card users, 60 per cent are Visa cards.

If customers are not particular about choosing a Visa from a Mastercard, then why does Visa have multi-million dollar campaigns with a galaxy of Hollywood stars. For instance, the previous campaign launched in 2003 featured Pierce Brosnan caught in a traffic jam in Bangkok.

He boards a tuk tuk, the local name for an auto-rickshaw, in order to meet his date, actress Zhang Ziyi, on time. Another ad was a commercial based on the theme of Lara Croft's character in the film, Lara Croft Tomb Raider II: The Cradle of Life.

Says Mukherjee, "Visa is ubiquitous in terms of acceptance. That's the idea we wish to reinforce."

HDFC's Rao adds, "Mega ad campaigns by credit card companies are market developmental activities. They make sense because they promote the usage of credit cards in general, which benefits the entire industry."

The campaigns are big, because they sell the category. For India, the push has to be much more. The high rates of interest on credit cards (up to 25 per cent) are an impediment for most Indian customers to use them.

Then, as a recent global survey done by the market research agency, AC Nielsen reveals, Indians are conservative about using credit cards. For example, only 29 per cent of Indian customers used their spare cash to pay off credit cards, lower than the global average of 31 per cent and far behind countries like Canada (50 per cent).

Will the Richard Gere commercial change these numbers?

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