With a simple idea – a grass roots, peer-to-peer financial education campaign for students – MasterCard was able to demonstrate to regulators and government bodies that it is part of the solution to mounting debt, not part of the problem. ‘Smart Study = Money Management’ resonated with students, stakeholders and the media, opening doors for MasterCard and significantly moving the needle on goodwill for the company. MasterCard avoided accusations of commercial benefit by not branding the campaign and giving students the tools to run it themselves. It was so cost-effective and successful that it is being repeated this year.

MasterCard is the leading credit card in the Netherlands. Like all financial institutions in the wake of the economic crisis, it is currently operating in an environment of tight regulatory scrutiny, and pressure from the Dutch government to contribute to solutions to financial illiteracy and irresponsible credit rather than being part of the problem.

MasterCard asked Weber Shandwick to develop a consumer education programme that would demonstrate its concern about consumer debt to regulators and government bodies.

The communications and business objectives were:
• Develop a platform to educate the next generation of users about responsible credit
• Generate positive coverage of MasterCard in the Dutch media
• Create fertile ground for MasterCard to build its position in the debit market (with its Maestro brand) in the run up to the introduction of the new European electronic payments standard, the Single Euro Payment Area (SEPA), on 1 January 2012
• Move the needle forward on goodwill for MasterCard and prevent even tighter regulation

The challenge was to position MasterCard as a reliable source of information in a sea of consumer financial education programmes from banks and NGOs, not least because it is sometimes perceived as being a ‘big, bad’ American company. Weber Shandwick also needed to avoid any assumption that MasterCard would commercially benefit from the campaign.

In January 2010, the Dutch National Institute for Finance Information (Nibud, a household name in the Netherlands) carried out research into the financial behaviour of Dutch students and agreed to share the results with Weber Shandwick. The survey of 2,122 students found their debt had increased by 25% over the past four years. The average Dutch student has a debt of €15,360 when they graduate, compared to less than €10,000 in 2004. One in five students is always or regularly in the red. The research also revealed that students borrowed money for the wrong reasons – for lifestyle purchases such as holidays and luxury goods, for example – and had surprisingly little knowledge about the consequences of borrowing money - aspects such as interest rates and redemption terms - and how to spend it wisely.

No other bank or organisation was specifically targeting its education programmes at students in further and higher education, so this research became the hook for MasterCard’s campaign: ‘Smart Study = Money Management’.

Nibud agreed to a rare partnership with a commercial organisation to help MasterCard deliver a critical and credible education programme. It was crucial that the campaign was not branded, and did not feature MasterCard’s logo, images or house style: the company would only be mentioned in the capacity of a sponsor or facilitator.

The plan was to teach students how to spend money wisely via peer-to-peer communication, with students teaching other students in budget training sessions at universities across the Netherlands, and spreading the word through local and student media. The campaign would use online communication tools and social media to recruit students and promote the training.

Weber Shandwick recruited ten students at four universities (Rotterdam, Leiden, Den Haag and Utrecht) to be the first trainers, developed training materials, and ran a two-day ‘train the trainer’ course for them in partnership with Nibud.

In March 2010, Weber Shandwick and MasterCard started presenting the programme to stakeholders, including MPs, civil servants at the ministries of finance, social affairs and justice, consumer associations, the Dutch Association of Banks, the Dutch merchants association, and the Dutch Central Bank.

Smart Study = Money Management was launched to the media in the first week of September 2010, with high-profile Dutch Christian Democratic MP Elly Blanksma handing over a payment card with budget tips to one of the student trainers, followed by the first official course being run at The Hague University.

The training programme took place from September to December. The student trainers organised and promoted the courses, set up partnerships with local faculty and student organisations, and carried out local media relations. Each student was required to run at least one training per month with a minimum audience of 15 students, and deliver four media articles, blog posts, letters to editors or other external communications tools. It was up to the students how they ran the courses, which ranged from a formal course run with the student faculty body, to ‘living room’ training with snacks. Weber Shandwick supported the students by helping them to set up local partnerships and giving advice on how to approach the media.

Together, MasterCard, Weber Shandwick and Nibud created a platform that succeeded in educating the next generation of users about responsible credit. From September to December 2010, the student trainers ran budget management courses for hundreds of students in the Netherlands, and reached hundreds of thousands of people with budgeting tips via the media.

There was significant and high quality coverage in national and student media outlets, including the lead front page story in free daily newspaper Metro, interviews with student trainers in the 2nd biggest Dutch national daily newspaper Het Algemeen Dagblad and numerous interviews and articles in student newspapers such as national daily NRC.Next, and on websites and radio stations including 3FM were secured. Almost every piece of coverage mentioned MasterCard and Nibud and listed budget tips.

Smart Study = Money Management has changed the way MasterCard is perceived by those who influence the future of the Dutch payments landscape, moving the needle on goodwill for the company and contributing to the prevention of even tighter regulation for the sector. At a cost of just €100,380, the programme has opened doors for MasterCard at a political and government level that have previously been closed:
• MasterCard and Weber Shandwick met MP Elly Blanksma on 21 April. She was initially hostile, asking what MasterCard was going to do about increasing debt. After the team presented the campaign she changed her view, saying that if the finance industry was taking responsibility in this way, there was no need for more regulation. She agreed to launch the campaign, after which she tweeted: ‘Doing the kick off of Smart Study = Money Management! Fine education programme for students, by students at the Hague University. Be conscious with money! I support this.’
• After meeting the team, Michiel Boots, deputy head of department of financial stability at the Ministry of Finance, introduced Mastercard to Centiq, a government-sponsored platform (honorary chaired by HRH Princess Maxima) with partners from the government, consumer organisations, science and the private sector, focused on increasing financial awareness amongst Dutch citizens. MasterCard and Centiq are currently reviewing a possible partnership to widen the scope of the programme in 2011, with Centiq introducing MasterCard to universities at a higher level.
• Smart Study = Money Management also gave MasterCard a reason to meet the ministry of social affairs, which has a big influence on legislation in the field of debt prevention, for the first time. Marius Oosterom, head of reintegration and participation was so enthusiastic that he shared government research results with the team and has recommended that the programme is extended to students in lower level education this year.

In the long term, the programme should allow MasterCard to continue to grow its business in the Netherlands by neutralising badvocates and affirming advocates. In the medium term, it has met the objective of creating fertile ground for MasterCard to build its position in the debit market (with its Maestro brand) in the run up to the introduction of the new European electronic payments standard, the Single Euro Payment Area (SEPA), on 1 January 2012.

MasterCard’s international and Dutch management were so impressed by the success of the campaign, they are planning to run it again in 2011 and extend it to more universities.

MasterCard’s Benelux business manager Marcel Roelants said: ‘It is really important that consumers understand how they can use our products in a responsible way. This programme has helped us to do exactly that, by targeting the next generation of users of payments products, and has changed the temperature in the room when meeting regulators and politicians from ice cold to hearth warming and genuine support’.