Visa became a major sponsor of the National Football League in 1995 in order to increase overall brand awareness and card preference among the sport’s enormous fan base of 185 million. The multi-million dollar sponsorship was one of many marketing initiatives, such as the company’s highly successful Olympic sponsorship, that helped make Visa the leading credit card brand in the United States during the mid 1990s. In 1998, consumer awareness of Visa’s support of the Olympic games in Nagano, Japan was an impressive 65%. That same year, Visa began to recognize that its association with the NFL was not being leveraged nearly as well as its Olympic sponsorship. Facing intense competition from other credit card companies in 1999, Visa’s brand team looked for a way to maximize its NFL sponsorship in order to drive brand awareness and preference. The company’s own research showed that professional football fans, particularly those who consider themselves “avid” fans, were likely to support a sponsor’s brand if they felt the brand genuinely supported the sport and its enthusiasts.
Breaking away from the traditional sports marketing model, which typically celebrates the athletes, Visa worked with Ketchum to reward the fans and their loyalty. Ketchum created a breakthrough way to maximize Visa’s NFL sponsorship – The Visa Hall of Fans, a national NFL fan search and permanent exhibit honoring the NFL’s most “avid” fans. This unique public relations campaign, now entering its third season, has already inducted 61 colorful, diehard fans representing every NFL team into the Visa Hall of Fans, which exists inside the NFL’s ultimate shrine – The Pro Football Hall of Fame. The marketing topspin from this campaign has nearly doubled unaided awareness of Visa’s sponsorship of the NFL.
Nationwide Media Audit: To better understand why Visa received little credit for its NFL sponsorship, Ketchum reviewed past media coverage and found:
a) coverage by financial, marketing and advertising trade publications that seldom reached consumers, and
b) consumer media coverage focusing on Super Bowl advertising or the humor of the NFL player-focused advertising.
To reach football enthusiasts directly, Ketchum determined that Visa needed a news platform tailored to consumer sports media.
NFL Research: Studies conducted by SR International and Ross, Cooper, Lund reported that 69 million Americans consider themselves “avid” NFL fans, of which 79% favor and reward brands that sponsor the NFL. NFL research also indicated that the best ways to reach “avid” NFL fans is to “celebrate [NFL] heritage and tradition” and “reward [fan] loyalty.” Ketchum concluded that Visa should focus primarily on fans, not players.
Secondary Research: A recent Business Wire article confirms the premise that increased visibility of a sports sponsorship can translate into increased brand awareness and preference.
Based on the above research, Ketchum determined that the logic of the sponsorship remained sound: raising awareness would drive brand preference.
Objective: Elevate consumer awareness of Visa’s NFL sponsorship to drive Visa brand preference
Strategies: 1) Create a branded, highly newsworthy program that re-energizes fans and rewards their support of the NFL
2) Partner with premier NFL icons to provide credible third-party endorsements
3) Use media and direct communications to reach fans everywhere they come in contact with the NFL and Visa
Audience: 69 Million Avid NFL Fans
Budget: $800K ($375K for PR fees and $425K for OOP, including exhibit construction)
Obstacle/Solution: In the mid-late 1990’s, fan stories in consumer sports media were largely negative and focused on the alienation of fans by teams indifference to the needs of fans; fan apathy toward multi-million dollar athletes; and middle-income fans priced out of games by rising ticket costs. Ketchum had to “buck” this trend by creating a program that celebrated and honored the role fans played in making the NFL a vibrant institution.
Strategy 1: Create a branded, highly newsworthy program to reinvigorate Visa’s NFL sponsorship
Targeting fans directly, Ketchum created the Visa Hall of Fans, the first fan-focused, sponsor-titled exhibit inside any athletic Hall of Fame. Winners of a nationwide “fan search” were awarded the ultimate NFL honor – a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame – creating a quirky, yet compelling, news platform to drive awareness of Visa’s NFL support across the United States.
To capture the imagination of football fans and link their passion for the game to a passion for Visa, Ketchum and Visa constructed a stand-alone exhibit – the first, new exhibit in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in more than five years. The exhibit includes The Hall of Fans winners’ photos and essays; an NFL Films-produced fan film montage; historic fan memorabilia; a taped message from NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue; and a wall-to-ceiling fan photo mural – all capped-off by prominent Visa signage.
Strategy 2: Partner with premier NFL icons to provide credible, third-party endorsements
Ketchum partnered with the Pro Football Hall of Fame to create a Visa-branded, yet highly newsworthy program. As the NFL’s ultimate shrine, the Hall of Fame name added credibility to Ketchum’s media efforts during call-for-entries and ceremony phases of the program. To further enhance credibility, representatives from the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the NFL helped judge entries and select the “ultimate” fans, based on team loyalty, knowledge of the team/sport, creativity and enthusiasm. Ketchum also drafted Hall of Fame players Walter Payton, Roger Staubach and Art Donovan as program spokesmen to generate national and local awareness for the call-for-entries phase and to pull the national media when the exhibit was unveiled.
Strategy 3: Use media and direct communications to reach fans everywhere they come in contact with the NFL and Visa
In the media: To generate awareness of the Visa Hall of Fans program and the call-for-entries phase, our spokespeople participated in satellite media tours, in-studio interviews; a radio news release; calls with local-market NFL beat writers; and a press luncheon in New York. To raise local-market awareness of the search, Ketchum targeted sports and lifestyle columnists in all 30 NFL markets and fan-frequented media, including sports magazines, team newsletters, web sites and fan clubs. Finally, Ketchum collaborated with the PR heads of all 30 NFL teams to further drive local interest.
At the Hall of Fame: To generate media exposure for the “Visa Hall of Fans” exhibit, Ketchum staged “enshrinement” ceremonies at the Hall of Fame. Hall of Fame players were on-hand to serve as ceremony emcees, delivering Visa messages and creating an important national media pull. Visa’s “ultimate” fans attended the ceremony, dressed in their “game day” costumes -- creating an outstanding media visual. Using the fans’ human-interest stories of lifelong team dedication to drive media interest, Ketchum conducted satellite media tours with Hall of Fame players and fans; distributed satellite feeds of the ceremony and fan sound bites; and secured the attendance of national and local media, including USA Today, Associated Press, and ESPN The Magazine.
At NFL games: Ketchum coordinated in-stadium ceremonies with several NFL teams, including the Philadelphia Eagles, Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills, to honor their “ultimate” fans. Key sports media and more than 60,000 NFL fans were on hand for each ceremony. Ketchum also secured advertorial space in each NFL stadium’s game day program.
At the Super Bowl: Ketchum capitalized on the media hype surrounding the Super Bowl by arranging print and broadcast interviews in Miami for the “Visa Hall of Fans” honorees from the NFC and AFC championship teams.
At retail: Ketchum leveraged Visa’s partnership with Simon Brand Malls to distribute “Visa Hall of Fans” informational and entry brochures at 131 malls nationwide and designed Hall-of-Fans-themed POS materials for use at thousands of retail locations. Ketchum also worked with Visa to create in-store fan events at leading retail partners, including Gart Sportsmart.
Objective: Elevate consumer awareness of Visa’s NFL sponsorship to drive Visa brand preference
According to Visa cardholder research, unaided awareness of Visa’s sponsorship of the NFL nearly doubled during the Visa Hall of Fans program (exact numbers are proprietary). This shift can be directly attributed to the Visa Hall of Fans program because it was the only new element in Visa’s integrated marketing program.
To date, Ketchum has generated with more than 210,000,000 impressions of the Visa Hall of Fans in outlets that NFL fans frequent, such as Sports Illustrated, ESPN The Magazine, ESPN “SportsCenter,” and USA Today’s Sports section. This media coverage exceeds the coverage Visa’s NFL sponsorship received in the three previous years combined. Coverage blanketed the country, including all 30 NFL markets. “Bounceback” figures have also been impressive: more than 1,200 NFL fans contacted or visited the Visa Hall of Fans and Hall of Fame’s hotlines/web sites.
Inspired by the Visa Hall of Fans program, Visa’s marketing team revised its NFL marketing campaign to incorporate the “real fans” theme:
Select Visa Hall of Fans winners are currently being showcased in the Visa’s NFL-themed television advertising
The Visa Hall of Fans winners’ testimonials became fodder for Visa’s overall marketing initiatives to raise awareness of its NFL sponsorship
Visa’s current NFL promotion offers consumers “NFL fan fantasies” and national advertising features “avid” fan scenarios
National Visa promotion with Merrill Lynch awards cardholders trips to the Visa Hall of Fans exhibit at the Hall of Fame
Visa now has a permanent branded exhibit in one of the most hallowed venues in sports -- the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The exhibit is a popular attraction at the Hall of Fame, which annually draws more than 260,000 NFL fans.
The Visa Hall of Fans program has strong marketing support from Visa, including a print advertisement in each NFL stadium’s game day program, brochures, web visibility and POS materials.
Retailer Gart Sports is currently conducting in-store events with 1999-2000 Visa Hall of Fans honorees to drive awareness for the 2000-2001-fan search and bring the NFL closer to fans.
Based on the overwhelming success and positive feedback from NFL supporters, the Visa Hall of Fans program will continue to be a key part of Visa’s NFL integrated marketing program in 2001.