Visa’s Kate Johnson talks digital disruption, influencer marketing and the evolution of sponsorship

Kate Johnson, Visa’s head of global sponsorship marketing, outlines the payment services company’s sports strategy and shares her thoughts on the future of a sponsorship sector undergoing drastic change.

Visa’s Kate Johnson talks digital disruption, influencer marketing and the evolution of sponsorship

As vice president and head of global sponsorship marketing at Visa, Kate Johnson oversees a portfolio of sports partnerships headlined by long-running deals with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), world soccer’s governing body Fifa, and the National Football League (NFL). It is a formidable portfolio of properties and platforms that speaks to the payment services company’s global footprint and aspirations, and one which requires no small amount of resources and creative thinking when it comes to activation and defining a brand message.

For Johnson, a former Olympic rower who won a silver medal representing the USA at the Athens Games of 2004, Visa’s priorities for each of its major sports sponsorships are twofold. On one hand, the company strives to use them to engage and excite an increasingly distracted millennial consumer audience, while on the other it seeks to ensure its investments in sport inform and educate its business and sporting clients on what Visa, the business and the brand, is all about.

To satisfy both objectives, Johnson (left) explains that Visa is constantly on the lookout for new means through which to tell its story in ways that other businesses, brands and consumers can connect with meaningfully. That overriding aim, she says, is a perennial challenge to overcome but it also comes with clear opportunities, particularly in light of new developments in technology and media.

Ahead of SportsPro’s The Brand Conference at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London on 28th September, Johnson outlines the premise of the presentation she has planned for the event, explains how Visa is rising to newfound challenges in the sponsorship space, and shares her thoughts on why the future value of sport itself is up for debate.

SP: You’ll be among the presenters at this year’s edition of The Brand Conference, which carries the overarching theme of brand communication in an era of digital disruption. Firstly, how have ongoing shifts in media distribution and changing consumption trends informed Visa’s approach to sports marketing?

KJ: It’s interesting because there are always parallels to the business that we’re running, and then also how consumers are interacting with our product alongside how they’re interacting with sport. Visa’s target audience is the wider millennial audience - it’s not just the 18 to 24, it goes up to the mid-30 range as well.

Within stadiums, I would say one of the biggest things that has changed is LED boards. Given that those sitting in a stadium are likely on their phones when they’re not watching the game, we reevaluated our strategy related to LED screens given that fans are not interacting with those board or in-stadium advertising the way they used to.

Visa also used to be very present at point-of-sale, so all the contracts we negotiated from a sports sponsorship point of view were based on communicating with the consumer at point-of-sale. That messaging was really important. The thing is, nowadays, what are you doing when you’re standing in line?

By the time you get to the front of the line, you've been on your phone the whole time, so no one’s even looking at the space around them to have it register. By the time you're at the actual point-of-sale, its super transactional - it’s get in, get out, and people really value speed.

What’s starting to happen now is we’re going to places where they are. What you’ve seen recently is Visa has engaged millennial influencers to report on their experience from the Games, or to bring people on the journey of the event. They could be anyone from Brodie Smith, who is an ultimate frisbee thrower, to some of the more traditional YouTube stars who are making really interesting content online. We’ve been taking them to events, having them talk about it while they’re out there, and we’re getting much higher traction in terms of how people are engaging with the content they’re producing with us.

What you’ve seen recently is Visa has engaged millennial influencers to report on their experience from the Games, or to bring people on the journey of the event.

Given that Visa is both a business and consumer-facing brand, in what ways do you try to make sure you’re engaging each of those target markets? Are there specific challenges that arise from promoting a brand that many customers don’t necessarily choose?

The other side of it is we’re looking beyond sport. Knowing people consume sport different today than they have in the past, we’ve been taking a look at our sponsorship portfolio to assess if we’re activating in the right way with some of these sponsorships, and also exploring new ways to engage our audience.

We’re always balancing product priorities against brand priorities against issuer or client priorities. Visa doesn't exist without our clients, so all the banks that have a Visa portfolio are the ones that are sharing our messages with their cardholders. Being invested in properties that are relevant for them and their cardholders is really important.

We are currently sponsors of Fifa, the Olympics and NFL, and aside from that, we’re looking at expanding into areas like travel, music, fashion, and have explored e-gaming a bit. The interesting things about these areas is that there is overlap between them - consumers, even when they’re going to a sporting event, they’re engaging with their environment, including the food, the lodging that they’re staying in, and the experiences they’re having outside of that.

Visa is an ingrained brand and we’re actually with the consumer throughout the entire journey, so what we’re trying to do is, in the context of these fantastic high-awareness sporting events, is to get to the consumer in an authentic way.

My team’s mission over the last couple of years has been focused on education to drive home what Visa is.

Your presentation at The Brand Conference will focus specifically on the evolution of sponsorship. How has the space evolved in the time you’ve been working in it, and what trends or innovations do you think are most likely to shape the future of sports sponsorship in general?

One of the biggest changes and one of the things that I want to drive home in this presentation is that the way we work has to change. How sponsorships work has to evolve - and it’s incumbent on the properties themselves, it’s incumbent on the brands, otherwise both are going to get left behind by the consumer.

For Visa, if part of our brand challenge is making sure that people actually understand what Visa is, what value it brings to their lives, we’ve got to be able to figure out how to use sponsorship to get that message across.

It starts with: what is Visa? And a lot of times the roadblocks we experience with the properties is that they think of Visa from 30 years ago. My team’s mission over the last couple of years has been focused on education to drive home what Visa is.

As an example, we’ve had the IOC president, the Fifa president and now the commissioner of the NFL come through our Visa Innovation Centre here in San Francisco and actually experience all these different forms of how payments is changing in the world.

We invited them so that they could understand that when we come to them with these innovative stadium ideas, when we come to them with things like Fast Pay lines at the Olympic Games or ideas on wearables or a payment-enabled ski glove and why that makes sense, they are now understanding Visa in a way that we need our consumers to understand it, and in a way that actually enhances the overall fan experience and the value we can bring.

I think that’s the bottom line, that’s where we’re starting. What is the fan journey and experience? And how does the property want to improve it, and what role can Visa play that improves that fan experience while also educating the consumer on what Visa is?

I’ve been pretty impressed with the creativity of brands that are non-endemic to something but are endemic to the consumer’s experience of that event or that sponsorship property.

You talk about the need for evolution and innovation in sports sponsorship. Looking across the industry as a whole, who or what is particularly inspiring or exciting you in the space today?

As of late, I’ve been most impressed with the ‘disruptors’ in the industry - those brands that are largely endemic to the thing they are trying to get in front of that are catching my eye, for example, Beats, and how they activated at the World Cup in 2014. However, I’ve also been pretty impressed with the creativity of brands that are non-endemic to something but are endemic to the consumer’s experience of that event or that sponsorship property. Watching how they engage and interact with consumers in meaningful ways that actually then ties them automatically to the event itself.

Where I think we’ll see more of this is from the likes of Uber and Airbnb. The ecosystem around these sporting events involve consumers planning their trips, where they’re staying, how they’re getting there, and the experiences they have along the way - all areas in which they can insert their brand in a place they may not have before. Then there’s Intel, who has been trying to evolve their perception through sponsorships like the Grammys and the Olympics. While the consumer might not initially understand exactly what it is that Intel does or why they’re a sponsor, Intel is picking these consumer platforms to communicate with consumers and bringing their amazing technology to life in a way that will make the consumer understand. They’re one to watch.

This year’s edition of The Brand Conference falls within six months of next February’s Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, and within a year of next summer’s FIFA World Cup in Russia. How are you planning to activate around those events, and to what extent will your approach be emblematic of the way in which you’ve sought to embed yourselves in those events in the past?

We are looking at next year as our ‘year of sports,’ with the Super Bowl and the Olympics back to back, and then FIFA World Cup in Russia not too soon after. The message we put out there will effectively try to thread across all three of these major global events, while also staying true to that properties’ fans and the environment. Regardless of the property, innovation is at the core of everything we do, and we’re really looking forward to activating in Korea, as they are technologically savvy and are such an advanced market. One of the things we’re looking to do to make PyeongChang exciting for consumers is to ensure that anyone traveling to Korea can experience that fast-forward life, and really be immersed in their culture and all the payment technology possibilities.

To find out more about SportsPro's The Brand Conference, and to register your interest, please visit sportsprotbc.com.