VISA Q&A: Stephen Day, Head of Sponsorship

07 Jun 2019

By: Sport Industry Group

Sport Industry Group speaks to Visa’s European Head of Sponsorship, Brand and Client Marketing, Stephen Day, about why he believes women’s football has become one the brand’s primary sponsorship properties and how the human-interest stories of the players, not the teams, resonate with their customers.

Tell us more about Visa's involvement in the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2019. How did it come about? 

Visa’s long-time partnership with the FIFA Women's World Cup is more than a sponsorship. For us, it is about underlining our purpose and making a stand for female empowerment through showcasing our commitment to diversity and inclusion. 

We’ve been a sponsor of FIFA since 2007, and women’s football has been a big part of that - we’ve sponsored both the men’s and women’s tournaments for the past 12 years. We were a proud sponsor of the tournament in Canada in 2015, where in the UK we did less activity as a sponsor, as much as anything because of the time differences with the teams playing over there, and the fact it wasn’t easy to watch the games over here. This time round, the FIFA Women’s World Cup is bigger than ever and we’ll see a huge increase in awareness and audience figures compared to the last tournament in Canada. We have an entire campaign directed toward empowering women, both leading up to and throughout the games. The tournament this summer in France is a marquee event for Visa as a sponsor.

This most recent investment in women’s football comes after the landmark seven-year partnership with UEFA. Why is it important for Visa to support the women’s game? 

The women’s game is incredibly important to us. Having signed the seven-year partnership with UEFA last year, this makes us the biggest global corporate sponsor of women’s football. It’s something we’re very proud of. I think as a brand, we’ve always stood for acceptance for everyone, everywhere, so it fits in neatly with our identity. When we were planning our activity for the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2019 and thought about women’s football, we recognised that it’s been stuck in this vicious circle for a while now. We had a situation where games were not seen as particularly exciting, there were smaller audiences watching the sport and therefore it wasn’t on TV. 

This meant there was a lack of investment from sponsors, which led to less funding at the grassroots level of the game, so you weren’t getting the role models developed within the game. Young girls were not seeing those role models, so were not attracted to football as a sport and didn’t view it as a potential profession. We decided that the time was right for Visa to actually help break that vicious circle. That’s why we approached UEFA and looked to sign this seven-year sponsorship of UEFA Women’s football. UEFA had taken the decision to split the rights between the men’s game and women’s games and we felt that by making this stance, we could make a significant difference in helping to accelerate the growth of the women’s game throughout Europe and beyond. 

It’s often said that it’s notoriously difficult for payment providers to form any sort of emotional connection with the end consumer. What is your stance on this and how do you think women’s sport especially may help in this regard? 

Visa sponsors the biggest sport’s events in the world. We are a long-standing sponsor of the Olympics, we sponsor all the FIFA tournaments, the NFL and one of the reasons we do that is we know they are huge passion points for consumers. When we associate our brand with those key passion points, we get cut-through and establish a connection with the end consumer. So that’s why we do invest so heavily in sponsorships. We also do it so we can pass through those same rights to our clients as well and they can benefit from Visa investing in those sponsorships. 

It feels like women’s football is at a tipping point. It is no longer a question of whether there is a market for women's football, but how big that market can become. The tournament this summer is something people are excited about and we’re expecting to see a huge increase in audience interest. We hope and feel that it will become one of those key passion points for a whole host of consumers. Not just for women - actually the greater percentage of audience for the women’s game is men. Men watch women football, so we believe it will become a key emotional connection point for both men and women this summer. 

“One Moment Can Change the Game” is a major international campaign – who are the key agencies and organisations that are supporting you with it? 

We’ve worked closely with our key agency partners for the “One Moment Can Change the Game” campaign. From a creative standpoint, Saatchi and Saatchi London has been leading the creative development and Starcom has been our media agency. Grayling is also working on the campaign as our UK PR agency. On the ground, Endeavor is our sponsorship agency, and Infrared our hospitality agency.

How does the campaign reflect your commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion? 

I think women’s football adds a different dimension to our sponsorship portfolio. The campaign reflects our values as a brand, namely acceptance and inclusion. The “One Moment Can Change the Game” campaign connects people, as does our broader sponsorship of women’s football, with those qualities of acceptance and inclusion throughout society - which are fundamental beliefs Visa stands for as an organisation. 

Your 2018 FIFA Men’s World Cup campaign - which won International Campaign of the Year at the BT Sport Industry Awards 2019 - was based around humour with Zlatan. Was it essential for your Women’s World Cup campaign to be cause-related or did you consider a more light-hearted campaign? 

This summer’s campaign is grounded in a series of insights around the stage of development of the women’s game and those moments that were really making a difference to accelerate its growth. We found during our research that the back stories of some of the players were absolutely fascinating and really resonated with people. That became the key creative development area of the campaign, rather than necessarily any humour-based approach. We always base our creative development on: what are the key insights and how are they going to resonate with our target audience? 

What was the selection process for your roster of Team Visa players? 

Team Visa is a concept we’ve used in the Olympics for around the past 20 years and we have had a range of athletes over the years, ranging from the Michael Phelps’s of this world, down to the young hopefuls. 

When moving into women’s football we decided, based on our insights, to develop personalities within the game as we found our target audience actually resonated more with personalities rather than with individual clubs. What we really want to do is create a platform for our 18 Team Visa footballers to become better known. Most people, even if they’re not football fans could reel off five or six male footballers, but to be honest a lot of people would really struggle to name that many female players. It’s about creating platforms so that people really get to know them, get to know their stories, their struggles, which will ultimately help us amplify our message. 

From a European point of view, we really wanted to have players who were reflective of the continent as a whole. So we have players from the developed nations such as England, Germany, France etc. but we also have players from Turkey and Poland, amongst others, because we wanted to have players in our communications that can help grow and nurture the game where it’s not as developed as a sport.

Why do you think women’s football has become a more attractive proposition for brands more recently? 

I think it’s reflective of what is happening in society around equality and inclusion on a more general scale. As a sport it is attracting a much wider audience and it therefore becomes a more attractive proposition for a whole host of brands. It is a long-term and ongoing process and not everything is going to be solved at the end of this FIFA Women’s World Cup. This is why we’ve signed to such a long-term commitment in women’s football, as we truly believe it is something which will continue to grow over the coming years.

Investment at all levels is important to accelerate the growth of the women’s game. By the time UEFA Women's Euro 2021 comes to England, I think we’ll see another step-change in terms of interest in the game. That’s something we sponsor as part of our package with UEFA and I think in two years’ time it will be even more attractive for brands to be associated with women’s football, for sure.