When an influential voice criticizes your industry for having “free rein to employ deceptive, unfair tactics that hit responsible consumers with unreasonable costs,” it can be difficult to beat back skepticism. It is even more challenging when that critic is the president of the United States, as it was with the credit card industry in 2010. In the wake of economic challenges and sweeping new regulations for the credit card industry, issuers across the country were changing policies and scaling back rewards offers. Signaling a new era of responsibility, many consumers – at the enthusiastic urging of personal finance experts – were flocking away from credit cards to cash and debit cards.
At the same time, Chase Card Services, a division of JPMorgan Chase & Co., was preparing a new rewards program for the Chase Freedom cash back credit card – the third change for the product in only four years. While some consumers had been confused by these product changes in the past, the unprecedented level of skepticism towards credit card issuers created an even more immediate imperative for a broad communications campaign that would correct misinformation in the marketplace and differentiate the product as the leading cash back card in the industry.
Confusing Value Proposition: Since its introduction in 2006, Chase Freedom has had a variety of value propositions, including: 3% cash back at grocery stores, gas stations, and quick-service restaurants; 3% cash back in top three spending categories; 3% cash back on rotating quarterly promotions; and the ability to switch between cash back and rewards. Knowing there was still unfamiliarity and confusion with Chase Freedom, we shaped our launch message to be simple and straightforward. Moreover, as Chase Freedom was planning to announce its improved cash back offering in 2010 – 5% cash back on rotating quarterly promotions – the bulk of the industry was reducing rewards, not introducing new ones. As a result, we had a unique opportunity to elevate Chase’s announcement as truly unique in the industry.
Highly Competitive Marketplace: Chase’s young cash back product was far from the only offering in the market. Chase Freedom’s competitors had been aggressively promoting their products for years. For example, Discover created the cash-back market in the 1980s, and the issuer continued to be the far-and-away leader in market share. But despite this well-entrenched loyalty and the availability of 5% cash back with other products, many competitors imposed stricter limitations on rewards than Chase Freedom. Our team worked diligently to shed light on other cards’ often hidden restrictions and draw direct comparisons, showing the full value of Chase’s “simple and straightforward” value proposition.
Competitive Insights: We identified Discover, American Express Blue Cash, Citi Cash Returns, and Capital One No Hassles Cash as the primary drivers of conversation in the cash back market. Discover netted the most positive awareness, while Chase Freedom (itself a large driver of coverage) garnered the most negative attention, based primarily on its frequently changing value proposition. Given this landscape, we focused first on reporters who had previously covered these cards to communicate the differentiating factors among the products. Using independent industry research, we learned that the average consumer charges $5,700 on his/her credit card each year, and would just begin to qualify for other popular cash back programs that require up to $3,000 or even $6,500 in spending.
Customer Insights: Through extensive consumer research, Chase identified two types of consumers that want reward benefits with their credit cards: those who prefer to earn points for travel and unique experiences; and those who want immediate cash back. Consumers who fall into this latter category – Chase Freedom’s target customers – enjoy smaller and more frequent rewards, recognize the value of a good deal, and appreciate recognition for being smart about how they spend their money. These customers include men and women ranging from 25-55 years of age with a household income $50K-$125K and at least some college education. Our team decided to base its media outreach on the outlets most influential to this group:
? Traditional Media¬: Industry reporters, personal finance reporters/columnists, consumer interest reporters, sector-specific reporters (retail, travel, home improvement, etc.)
? Online Media: Financial news blogs, card-specific websites, consumer advice blogs, family blogs, sector-specific blogs (weddings, travel, dining, home improvement, etc.)
? Stakeholders and Analysts frequently quoted in the above media: Consumer advocates, business partners, academic experts, financial analysts, card industry experts
After gathering these research and audience insights, the team developed a series of communications goals that would directly support Chase’s aggressive business objectives. Throughout 2010, Chase sought to: 1) Win the cash-back marketplace by acquiring an aggressive number of new customers and increasing market share; and 2) Consistently reinforce product features and benefits through marketing and customers activations that reach target customers. As a result, our communications strategy focused on: 1) Establishing Chase Freedom as the industry-leading cash back card through greater awareness of the card’s 5% cash-back promotion; 2) Developing a stable of stakeholders, personal finance reporters, financial bloggers, and consumer-focused media that can speak to the value of the product. We established a baseline goal of 60 million impressions for launch and 200 million impressions for the year.
Prior to the public announcement of Chase Freedom’s new cash back program, the team organized pre-briefings for key personal finance reporters, industry analysts, and consumer groups, explaining how industry and customer research helped inform a new, more simple and straightforward cash back product. Throughout the product launch, Chase briefed more than 80 reporters and columnists and contacted hundreds more regarding the card’s new value proposition, leading to prominent coverage in The New York Times’ Bucks blog and trade and card ratings websites. In addition, Chase sent creative “Money Tree” packages – combating the old adage “money doesn’t grow on trees” – to a range of broadcast, print, and online media contacts. In the months following launch, we launched a series of programs designed to support Chase Freedom’s communications goals through 2010:
Chase Freedom Truth Squad: To combat misperceptions about the product, the team launched an aggressive rapid response system to quickly correct inaccurate or unbalanced coverage about Chase Freedom, elevate the card above its competitors, and identify new opportunities for coverage on blogs, card ratings websites, and other outlets. Throughout the year, our team made contact with more than 300 bloggers and reporters. For example, after several briefings with personal finance site NerdWallet, the site proclaimed: “No matter how you cut it, the 5% cash back championship belt is held by the Freedom [card] from Chase.”
Chase Survey Series: Chase Freedom partnered with U.S. News & World Report on an ongoing public opinion survey project. For example, in July, Chase sponsored a consumer survey to examine economic sentiment surrounding the summer travel season. Our team leveraged survey findings to bolster recognition of the 5% cash back offering through aggressive media outreach (including a segment on CNN American Morning), a multimedia news release, tip sheets for bloggers, matte news releases, and satellite radio and television media tours featuring lifestyle expert Victoria Moran.
Moments that Matter Campaign: Chase Freedom also worked with personal finance, retail, and consumer lifestyle reporters and bloggers during the height of “Do it Yourself” season (aligning with Freedom’s seasonal promotion for home improvement and lawn and garden promotions) and holiday shopping season (matching the 5% cash back offering at grocery and department stores); Chase Freedom was featured in a satellite media tour with DIY Network star Jay Baker and a radio news release on healthy Thanksgiving spending with life coach Victoria Moran.
Summer of Freedom: Chase Freedom sponsored a series of customer experience events, including: VIP access at popular music festivals (Bonnaroo, Outside Lands, and Life is Good); shopping events; beach days; and family movie nights – all tied to the product’s cash-back categories. Our team broadcasted the unique customer experiences on the ground nationally through many channels, such as a Facebook live stream activation and exclusive media interviews. During the summer music festivals, we provided media VIP access to private performances and talent interviews – the same “front-row” access offered to customers. Together, these festivals activities generated 125 million impressions.
Consumer Media Lunch: Chase fostered new relationships with lifestyle media outlets that are important to the card’s target customers, which kicked off at a consumer media luncheon in New York with top-tier publications such as Real Simple, Family Circle, and Parents. The event highlighted consumer spending and saving behavior with behavioral finance expert Dr. Hersh Shefrin and key Chase executives.
SUMMARY OF RESULTS
By all measures, Chase Freedom exceeded its business and communications goals in 2010. Since the communications campaign kicked off in February 2010, the business saw a rapid uptick in awareness, including hundreds of thousands new visitors to the website, increased applications, and increased engagement with the product among existing customers. By the second quarter, positive sentiment towards Chase Freedom had risen to 86%, compared to 50% during the same time in 2009.
From the beginning of the campaign – which kicked off with two powerful stories in The New York Times and CNNMoney.com (“Finally! Good news from credit card industry”) – throughout 2010, Chase Freedom captured more than 400 million impressions throughout the year (115 million of which came in the first month). Our communications strategies paid tremendous dividends as reporters, bloggers, and industry commentators quickly understood the simple and straightforward approach of Chase Freedom. Named “One of Three Pieces of Plastic Worth Owning” by Newsweek, Chase Freedom has gone on to win editorial praise across the country: “Best Cash Back Credit Card of Mid-2010,” Huffington Post; “Credit Card That Won’t Rip You Off,” MSNBC Money; “Best Gas Rebate Card,” cardratings.com; “Best Cash Back Credit Card,” CreditCardGuide.com. To date, Chase Freedom has averaged 26 news and 265 blog mentions per month. The card has received high-level recognition and praise from industry leaders and media.