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In 1997 MasterCard International, the largest subsidiary of the credit card company MasterCard Incorporated, was reeling from years of unfocused campaign strategies. The industry leader, Visa International, posted sales of $1.65 billion in 1996, nearly double MasterCard's posted sales. In a saturated credit card market where companies jostled to find a place in consumers' wallets, it was essential for MasterCard to forge a powerful brand image that would bring new customers to MasterCard and convince current cardholders to use their MasterCards more often. "The bottom line is that we want people to like us, and we want MasterCard to be the first card they pull out," Lawrence Flanagan, the company's vice president of advertising, told American Banker. Hoping to develop an emotional bond with consumers and improve the MasterCard brand image, the company released its "Priceless" campaign.
With an estimated cost of $85 million to $100 million, the television, print, Internet, and billboard campaign was created by the ad agency McCann-Erickson New York. The campaign broke in October 1997 with TV spots that presented a number of scenarios in which intangible rewards were obtained by virtue of the purchase of various items. For instance, "Father/Son" depicted a father taking his son to a baseball game. The prices of various items were listed: "two tickets ($28); two hot dogs, two popcorns, and two sodas ($18); one autographed baseball ($45)." The final item, "Real conversation with 11-year-old son," was tallied as "Priceless." The versatility of both the tagline and the concept enabled McCann-Erickson to target nearly any market with advertising that was either humorous or sentimental.
By 2004 the campaign had appeared in 96 countries and had been translated into 46 languages. In addition to winning more than 100 awards, including advertising awards, by 2006 "Priceless" was credited with boosting MasterCard's market share in the intensely competitive credit card sector. Adweek referred to "Priceless" as "one of the industry's most admired campaigns."
While MasterCard's chief competitor, Visa USA, had used the "It's Everywhere You Want to Be" campaign since 1985, MasterCard had struggled to devise a lasting brand image. MasterCard's "Master the Moment" campaign, which ended in 1993, attempted to position the card as a more upscale product. Component ads portrayed celebrities and other glamorous folk spending with carefree abandon. With its next campaign, however, MasterCard swung to another extreme. This effort, titled "It's More than a Credit Card: It's Smart Money," stressed the practicality of MasterCard. Rife with scenes of "everyday" people using MasterCard at ordinary places like the supermarket, "Smart Money" was MasterCard's attempt to carve out a unique niche for itself that distinguished it from the more aspirational messages of Visa and American Express Company (AmEx).
Although MasterCard had sought to glorify middle-class values, the result was less than desirable. Its image seemed mired in stolid and unexciting connotations. While Visa had successfully represented itself as the universally accepted "globe-trotting card," "MasterCard was the everyday hardware-store card," a McCann-Erickson executive told Adweek. With its share of the domestic charge card market slipping to about 26 percent in 1996 (compared to Visa's 52 percent), MasterCard fired Ammirati Puris Lintas—its most recent ad agency—in March 1997 and turned to McCann-Erickson to revolutionize the way consumers perceived MasterCard.
"Priceless" was a particularly strong campaign because it allowed MasterCard to address distinct audiences with individual commercials tailored to suit each market niche. With its broad goal of targeting consumers aged 18 to 54, MasterCard was faced with a seemingly formidable task of spanning generational and demographic divides. McCann's innovation was to maintain the overarching unity of "Priceless" at the same time that it pursued radically different groups. One important market for MasterCard was the massive baby-boom generation. The benefits of connecting with this audience were obvious. Not only were boomers vast in number, but they also wielded considerable spending power as they reached the pinnacles of their careers (and earning power). This niche of wealthy 40- and 50-somethings was the most sought-after segment in the credit card industry, according to Advertising Age. Catering to this population was challenging, though, and involved "subtly celebrat[ing] experience [while] squeamishly avoid[ing] terms like middle-aged," explained the Washington Post.
One way "Priceless" targeted boomers was to incorporate the realities of the generation into the campaign. Many of the advertisements featured attractive people in their 40s and 50s celebrating the rites of passage of mid-life. "India" portrayed an American couple escaping to India for their 25th wedding anniversary, while "Ireland" narrated a woman's return visit to her homeland with her adult daughter. Even more important, though, was the fact that component "Priceless" ads presented the values and mind-sets of this crucial demographic group. As an industry analyst told the Post, for boomers, "[l]ife is supposed to be a series of new adventures." Accordingly, "India," which first ran in January 1998, showed the anniversary couple boldly exploring India as a means of marking their time together, not simply cozying up in a restaurant close to home. MasterCard rejected Paris as the couple's destination because "that was deemed insufficiently exotic for adventure-minded boomers," noted the Post. A print ad with the "Priceless" moment described as "learning Mozart at 48" (on a $7,000 baby grand piano, no less) subtly flattered boomers: not only were they spirited enough to embark on new challenges, but also, they were not too old to be able to do so.
Other demographic groups were important to MasterCard as well. While boomers controlled a substantial portion of the market, consumers in their 20s were in the process of forming lifelong brand allegiances. As USA Today noted, younger consumers "tend to stick with the first card they use." "Zipper," which debuted at the same time as "India," specifically targeted "people in their early twenties," a MasterCard spokesperson told American Banker. The commercial employed a wry humor in its portrayal of a young man clumsily trying to strike up a conversation with an attractive woman in a coffeehouse. Many "Priceless" ads opted for more universal appeals altogether. In September 1998 MasterCard used the backdrop of the race between baseball sluggers Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa to break Roger Maris's long-standing home-run record. After cataloging the costs of the home-run extravaganza to scenes of the two players smacking long drives, the spot concluded "Sixty-two: Priceless."
MasterCard's quest to bolster its brand and to incorporate its various products under one unified campaign was shared by its primary rivals, Visa and American Express. In the cutthroat credit card market, with consumers being constantly bombarded by new card offers, building a brand was the best way to remind consumers to use a specific card. Visa had mastered this strategy. Since 1985 the company's "It's Everywhere You Want to Be" ads unstintingly trumpeted that Visa was the most universally accepted card in the world. Although this campaign directly attacked AmEx, it had also succeeded in margin-alizing MasterCard. "Everywhere" had implied "that if Visa targets AmEx, then Visa makes MasterCard irrelevant," an industry analyst told Card News. "Everywhere" ads in 1998 pursued niche markets such as Generation X consumers, Internet shoppers, and affluent baby boomers.
In addition to "Everywhere," Visa launched its "Works Like a Check" campaign in 1997 to boost usage of its debit card, the CheckCard. These commercials, created by ad agency BBDO (which also handled the "Everywhere" account), featured easily recognizable celebrities, such as Bob Dole and Shirley MacLaine, who were thwarted in their efforts to write a check because they did not have identification handy. "Our long-term strategy is to move from being the world's best credit card to the world's best way to pay," a Visa spokesperson told Advertising Age. Visa also had several high-profile sponsorships, which further highlighted its name and brand messages. Especially effective were its affiliations with the National Football League, the Olympic Games, and horse racing's Triple Crown races—the Kentucky Derby, the Belmont Stakes, and the Preakness. But in a testament to the brutally competitive nature of the industry, Visa's share of the market declined slightly in 1997 despite all these efforts.
In 1996 AmEx began a massive branding campaign conceived by ad agency Ogilvy & Mather that sought to bring new customers to the American Express flock. Like "Priceless," AmEx's "Do More" strove to use the overarching campaign to promote all of AmEx's services and cards. Although it had long prided itself on its elite consumer core, AmEx had experienced a dramatic loss of market share in the early 1990s. To reverse this trend the company used "Do More" as a vehicle to attract younger consumers as well as a more diverse base of cardholders. Print ads and television spots in 1998 featured multiracial golf sensation Tiger Woods, comedian Jerry Seinfeld, snowboard pioneer Jake Burton, and basketball legend Earvin "Magic" Johnson. "The message is that American Express has a broad range of financial services for various life stages and lifestyles," said American Banker. After years of slippage AmEx's share of the market rose to 17 percent in 1997 from 16.4 percent the year before. In 1998, however, AmEx once more lost ground to Visa and MasterCard.
The hallmark of the "Priceless" campaign was its consistency. Every MasterCard commercial, regardless of the specific product touted or the intended target audience, bore the same tagline and the same format of "shopping list" and "priceless" moment. The reason was clear. In the ultra-competitive market staying "on message" was essential to convincing consumers to pull out MasterCard from their card-stuffed wallets. As one analyst told Direct, the key to credit card marketing was "to do something habit forming to build use of the card." MasterCard wanted its products inextricably linked to the "Priceless" theme in consumers' minds. To this end the company crafted "Priceless" ads for an array of offerings. For example, a commercial that debuted in June 1998 touted MasterCard's debit card: after showing a hardware store checkout line moving with glacial speed as a supervisor was called to approve a routine check purchase, the "Priceless" moment was described as "Never having to wait for Al"—the hapless manager—"again." MasterCard's Platinum card was the focus of both the "Ireland" and "India" spots. Even the company's corporate sponsorships were included. As the official sponsor of Major League Baseball MasterCard seamlessly incorporated its baseball-themed spots into "Priceless." In addition to the Sosa/McGwire commercial, MasterCard released a touching vignette about taking children to their first ball game in time for the 1998 World Series. MasterCard's sponsorship of World Cup soccer was the focus of yet another "Priceless" ad that used the patriotic image of the American flag as its "priceless" episode.
A LITTLE TOO FLATTERING
In 1999 MasterCard International sued Home Box Office (HBO) over a "Priceless" parody the cable channel aired to promote its original series Arliss. The show featured a slimy and corrupt sports agent as its title character. The offending commercial portrayed Arliss engaging in various shady transactions and concluded with the tagline: "There are some men money can't buy. Arliss isn't one of them."
To keep its marketing message foremost in consumers' minds the company selected high-profile media venues to carry "Priceless" commercials. "Zipper" and "India" debuted during the 1998 Super Bowl because that game "is the showcase event … to reach the largest audience in one shot," a MasterCard executive told American Banker. Acquiring this massive viewership was crucial if MasterCard was to succeed in its quest "to become the Coca-Cola of currency," he added. Other "Priceless" commercials were aired during subsequent Super Bowls. On the broadcast of the 2004 game the cartoon character Homer Simpson appeared in a spot, using his MasterCard to purchase items at a convenience store. The next year a 30-second spot depicted more than 10 advertising icons, such as Count Chocula and the Pillsbury Doughboy, gathering around a dinner table. The spot ended with the voice-over "Getting everyone together for dinner? Priceless." The 2006 Super Bowl featured the actor Richard Dean Anderson, who in the 1980s had starred in the popular TV adventure series MacGyver, escaping from a bomb-rigged building by using everyday items that he purchased with his Debit MasterCard.
MasterCard opted to debut its first-ever Internet-oriented ad on another prominent television program—the final episode of the popular show Seinfeld. This commercial, which hyped MasterCard's alliance with Excite, was MasterCard's attempt to introduce television viewers to the ease of online shopping. The commercial was a perfect illustration of MasterCard's plan to expand its markets through the "Priceless" campaign. The spot depicted a busy mother who purchased her children's clothes on Excite's shopping channel with her MasterCard. The time she has saved provided her with a "Priceless" moment of being able to relax. E-commerce afforded credit card companies tantalizing opportunities. Unlike typical retail transactions, Internet purchases were almost entirely made with credit cards. Even though only a small fraction of consumers had ever tried buying products online, many analysts foresaw an explosion of online retail business. Debit cards were becoming more common as well and—like Internet commerce—offered MasterCard the chance to win new customers without cannibalizing its base, as debit cards mainly competed against cash and checks as payment options.
The campaign branched out with side storylines carrying the "Priceless" theme. In 2004 the "Dog Trilogy" featured three spots telling the story of a lost puppy who was helped back home by various do-gooders. One of the commercials earned Adweek's Best Spot recognition. The same year MasterCard released its first Ramadan-themed campaign that targeted consumers in the Middle East. One spot featured a traveling Arab businessman who used his MasterCard to spend time with his family.
The campaign was an undisputed success. After only three months MasterCard noted a rise in consumer awareness about the brand. The company told American Banker that its "share of wallet" increased 0.4 percentage points in the first six months of "Priceless." The magazine attributed this to "MasterCard steadying its course." The company reported that its share of the domestic credit card market reached 26.9 percent in 1998, up from 26.4 percent in 1997. From 1997 until 2002 MasterCard's sales increased from $1.08 billion to $1.89 billion. "They've hit a grand slam with this one," an industry analyst told American Banker. If imitation was the sincerest form of flattery, the campaign's ability to boost consumers' awareness was also evidenced by the number of spoofs of the campaign that cropped up on programs such as Saturday Night Live, the Late Show with David Letterman, and The Simpsons. Joyce King Thomas, deputy creative director at McCann-Erickson, estimated in 2004 that the campaign had been parodied about 50 times. "It just says that it's part of popular culture when it's used on programming," she said in Adweek.
By the start of 2006 the "Priceless" campaign had aired in 105 countries and had been translated into 48 languages. The campaign collected more than 100 awards, including both a 2001 and 2006 Gold EFFIE Award in the Sustained Success category, which recognized campaigns with three or more years of sustained growth. It also won a Bronze Lion at the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival, Adweek magazine's Spot of the Year award, and an Advertising Women of New York "Good" Award. In 2002 there were 590 million MasterCards in circulation. Nonetheless, an effective brand campaign from Visa had helped MasterCard's fiercest competitor remain number one as "Priceless" entered its fifth year. In 2002 Visa posted sales of 4.8 billion, more than double the $1.89 billion recorded by MasterCard.
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