(IOC) emphasises the positive attributes of the Olympic movement with research showing the terms that people associate with the Games include:
  • Fair competition
  • Participation
  • Dignified
  • Respectful

Similarly, the IOC highlights the attributes that people don’t associate with the Games:

  • Exclusive
  • Commercialised
  • Selfish
  • Self centred
  • Exploitative

In other words the Olympics is all about being inclusive, friendly, non exploitative and not over-commercialised. How does that image fit with the insistence that the only way to buy a ticket to the 2012 London Games with a credit or debit card from the organiser will be to use Visa?

Put simply it doesn’t fit. It feels:

  • Exclusive
  • Greedy
  • Paranoid
  • Commercialised  
  • Inconvenient

… and several other negative adjectives to boot. It is the equivalent of saying that you are forced to eat McDonald’s and drink Coca-Cola if you attend.

There are 91 million Visa cards issued in the UK compared to 40 million MasterCards and four million American Express cardholders. In other words Visa is market leader but there are many people who do not have a Visa card or who don’t use it as their primary card. For those visiting London from abroad, the ratio of Visa cardholders is likely to be similar. Overseas fans will, however, be able to use other cards if purchasing tickets from their national Olympic committee, rather than London 2012 sites.

But the sponsorship deal also means that once on site, fans without Visa cards will not be able to withdraw cash from ATMs or make purchases at any Olympic sites unless they have cash. The London Organising Committee (LOCOG) has announced that it will be possible to buy a temporary pre-paid Visa card for the Olympics. It didn’t say whether or not you could buy one using a MasterCard.

The UK Office of Fair Trading is currently investigating the arrangement and could be in a position to rule against it. The question is – why hasn’t the IOC, LOCOG or the PR department of Visa beaten them to it?

Yes in cash terms Visa will earn more by being the exclusive card of the Games, it might even force a few people to switch from a rival or to take out an extra new card. In terms of global daily use and uptake of Visa, however, that’s a drop in the ocean.

That is hardly what Visa’s global sponsorship strategy is about. Surely it became a partner of the IOC and FIFA to make a statement of confidence in being number one in the market. And being allied to the most popular and, arguably most multi-cultural sporting events on the planet is also about being inclusive and democratic.

And what is the likely outcome of this insistence that people pay using Visa? Most Visa holders probably won’t be upset or angry because they haven’t been inconvenienced, although I suspect a fair few will think less of their card issuer. For holders of other cards however, who realistically want to buy online or over the phone, they are effectively being told that they can’t.

Sure, they could pay by cheque – but let’s face it, most of us never use cheques anymore and for buying tickets they aren’t ideal. You simply don’t know that the tickets will still be available by the time the cheque has been cashed, so if you need to have a second or third option, it could take weeks of playing postal tag.

And anyway, shouldn’t logic dictate that the only cheques acceptable be those issued by banking partner Lloyds TSB?

The reality is that of the 10 million tickets on sale, around two million members of the public will be told that they can’t simply complete a normal shopping transaction because they’ve had the audacity to use the wrong card issuer.

We are in living an age when major companies talk about customers being ‘brand ambassadors’. Many spend a fortune on experiential marketing to a few thousand people in the knowledge that on average they will tell another 17 about their experience.

In an era of Twitter and Facebook and the ability of members of the public to start viral campaigns that can go global in a matter of hours, do Visa and the IOC really want to recruit an army of two million ‘brand assassins’?
The whole issue has already resulted in acres of bad press and no one has yet been refused a ticket.

Visa has a huge opportunity to activate its sponsorship programme without punishing non-customers and likewise the IOC/LOCOG are making a big mistake if they consider that the interests of sponsors come before those of the public.

Successful sponsorship activation can only be achieved through being honest and respectful of customers and engaging with them. Telling them which products they can and can’t use is closer to bullying than enticing.

In this game of cards the winner is most likely to be MasterCard.

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