Visa & Mastercard: How Well Do These Brands Actually Tell Their New Story
Companies that share a similar offering often have little space to differentiate themselves in terms of functionality. More than others, they have to highlight the emotional benefits that come with their products. Such businesses are highly interesting, because they reveal the essence of branding. The first example that comes to my mind is credit card brands. Let's take a closer look.
Brands excite me. Driven by curiosity, I dive into particularly exciting ones once in a while. With each article, I aim to highlight interesting aspects of a brand — be it its remarkable essence, unique identity, creative expression, or customer experience. Would you like to discuss this post or bring up another exciting brand to focus on next time? Just drop me a line on LinkedIn. I'm happy to hear from you.
Payment processing companies essentially offer the same product, with a negligible range of minor differences in terms, fees, and validity. Here, brand comes into play. As rival Mastercard revamped its brand in 2016 (followed by American Express in 2018), Visa decided to not stay behind and did a major rebrand last year. Now that their new identities have taken shape in daily communications, I think it is a good moment to take a closer look at these two credit card giants.
Let's Start With the Basics
For the ones amongst you who are rather into ApplePay, Revolut, and other new kids on the block, I'll start with providing some facts behind the established Visa and Mastercard brands. The Visa product, initially named BankAmericard, was launched by Bank of America in 1958. Today, Visa Inc., headquartered in Fresno, California, counts 20.5k employees and has 1.8b cards in use worldwide. In 1966, Mastercard, originally known as Interbank and Master Charge, was created by an alliance of several regional bankcard associations in response to the launch of Visa's predecessor. Today, the company has 24k employees and operates worldwide from its headquarters in Purchase (what's in a name?), New York. 700m cards out there carry the Mastercard logo. So far the hard facts. Now, let's explore the essence of the actual brands, starting with the internal definition:
These wordings are sleek as usual but I wonder how they are translated into touchpoints and, more importantly, how they shape customer experiences. According to Interbrand, Visa has a brand value of $14.7b, whereas Mastercard hits $9.4b – both with a considerable growth tendency, so apparently both brands are going strong. Interesting fact: The brand value of Mastercard shows a clear increase from 2016 – the rebrand year – onwards, whereas that of Visa stagnated for a while. Now, it's a closer race again. Let's take a look at these recent rebrand efforts first.
Spotting the Rebranding Differences
Mastercard – Emphasizing Simplicity, Connectivity, & Seamlessness
In 2016, Pentagram had the honor to sharpen the Mastercard identity. Although most agencies understand that the logo isn't the ideal starting point for a rebrand, Pentagram recognized that it could be for Mastercard. The iconic red and yellow intersecting circles of their logo are globally recognized – even without the brand name – and its simplicity in terms of color and shape have been inspiration for the adjustments of other visual elements, too, such as the color palette, the typographic system, graphic shapes, and icon sets.
The identity brings simplicity and clarity with an increased emphasis on the interlocking circles, and is optimized for use in digital contexts.Pentagram
In most cases, such a rebrand checklist, just focusing on the visuals, would disappoint me. Not in this case. A strong story line had been out there since the start of the "Priceless" campaign over two decades before, and with the addition of "Simplicity, Connectivity and Seamlessness," for the people connect, Mastercard had nailed the essence of its brand. "No need to change something that's good already," Pentagram must have thought, and put all efforts into the visual identity (to be enriched by its sonic counterpart two years later). I think this focus has led to a beautiful result: a purification of the brand's appearance, of which the ultimate step has been the recent word mark removal, unfolding the potential to be perceived as simple and contemporary.
Visa – Including Everyone Everywhere, Uplifting Everyone Everywhere
The 2021 Visa rebrand had a rather strategic starting point. It expressed it doesn't want to be seen as a credit card company anymore and shift to being perceived as a trusted network that empowers people and businesses to participate in the global economy. Brand agency Mucho developed six design principles to act as reference points for everything built upon their strategy. They redesigned the full range of visual elements and didn't leave anything untouched, so it seems. The most remarkable change I see: The word mark got slightly more subtle, setting the stage for a revival of the original Visa symbol. The two stripes, representing the blue sky and gold-colored hills of California, form a strong style element, showing up many visuals, such as icons, signage, and merchandizing graphics.
We wanted to evoke a sense of access and our belief in economic inclusion to underscore that Visa is so much more than a credit card company.Freddie Covington – SVP, Chief Brand at Visa
The Visa rebrand follows the trend of reverting to the visual origins after a long ride through a variation of logos. This approach might remind people of a long-term heritage and solid experience, something young startups cannot compete with. Besides, removing unnecessary visual noise that has been added to the logo over time, typically makes the brand appearance more timeless and suitable for digital applications. Retrospectively, one can say that the Visa rebrand has been the final step in a logo simplification process which took years, dropping the symbol (2005), removing one color (2014), and saying goodbye to the word mark gradient (2022), ending up in a simple, monochrome logo. Similar to brands like Volkswagen, Starbucks, and Uber, this ensures a better digital experience. Now that Visa has reincarnated its golden and blue symbol, I'm curious to see when the word mark is left out altogether, fully relying on its stripes. When Mastercard can do it, why couldn't Visa?
Now, Here's How Well the Brands Perform
We could now easily compare artefacts created during both rebrand projects but brand is not a visual identity. As a matter of fact, it is not even the internal definition of the brand essence, which is the base for such design work. Brand is how they think about you, so we have to go a step further and explore the image in the market. What do Visa and Mastercard actually look like in people's minds – and not in print or on screen? How are they different? How authentic are these brands? What makes people prefer one above the other?
What do Visa and Mastercard actually look like in people's minds – and not in print or on screen?
Driven by my curiosity, I decided to do a little experiment to find some rough answers to these questions. I asked nearly 100 people in our international organization – yes, no perfect science here – what comes to their mind when seeing each brand's global homepage, a key touchpoint in the customer journey.
The result is an extensive map of characteristics, basically giving clues about the brands' image. I found four interesting insights about brand image hidden in these.
Focus vs. Clutter
When clustering the inputs and listing the top ten, the first thing that catches the eye is the weight distribution; the top thoughts people have about Visa – boring, accessibility, diversity, and people – lie rather close to one another. Mastercard, however, has one item – explore – as a clear winner, not only almost double the mentioning of its second characteristic, but also that of Visa's first one. In branding, wanting to be more often leads to being less, and this might apply to the Visa brand.
Mastercard doesn't only seem to win the focus game here; it also manages to create a rather unanimous interpretation of the brand – with hardly any contradictions. The Visa brand, however, shows a less unified picture. Some say it's outdated, others praise its modernity. Describing Visa as formal only gets slightly overruled by expressing how human it actually is. And, last but not least, many find the website clear, whereas quite many mention it's chaotic. Such differences in appreciation is not a bad thing in branding per se, as it can be a sign of being bold – some people liking it, some not. I'm not sure is this the case for a rather traditional brand like Visa, though.
Mastercard doesn't only seem to win the focus game; it also manages to create a rather unanimous interpretation of the brand – with hardly any contradictions.
Image vs. Identity
Now, let's see to which extent the brands seem to succeed in mirroring their redefined identity in the market. In other words: how successful is the brand strategy? Mastercard wants to profile itself as a brand that offers everyone priceless possibilities. We see that this aspirational aspect lands very well in the heavy-weight explore cluster. Simplicity, connectivity, and seamlessness, as pushed by Pentagram, all demonstrate access for everyone to these possibilities, and this seems to be understood: clarity, and to a lesser extent global, welcoming, and engaging are mentioned by website visitors. Quite a good branding job, one could say.
Visa aims to highlight the connection of people and sticks to plain payments instead of the dreams these might make coming true. However, this network or community aspect is hardly mentioned in questionnaire; the efforts Visa has made in this space are rather interpreted as diversity and people, of which the former represents the inclusive character of the brand. Accessibility is certainly compatible with the network and people aspects, but can't be called spot-on. Particularly for Visa, considerable headspace seems to get filled by rather superficial features. The brand is described as being boring, techy, and fresh, and even colors are mentioned.
Visa aims to highlight the connection of people and sticks to plain payments instead of the dreams these might make coming true.
Why vs. Why Not
Competitors typically fight for their share in the same customer pool, so let's take a look at what these insights actually lead to, in terms of brand preference. Remember, it's about the same product offering essentially, so the image plays a major role in choosing one brand above the other. Two-thirds of the interviewees would choose Mastercard; only one-fourth would go for Visa. That seems no more than logical, based on this brand comparison exercise so far: Mastercard seems to be better in branding – at least currently, and for the website. But what do we see when we filter people based on brand preference?
When asked, Mastercard advocates tell that they appreciate the possibilities, and the emotions that come with them. The website's clarity of content and warm style convey this message to them. Most of them think that Visa is boring and chaotic, and the people aspect doesn't seem to be very meaningful.
People who prefer Visa see similar characteristics for Mastercard as the others, but don't seem to value them. As a matter of fact, when being asked directly, many tell that Visa is more down-to-earth, and easier to identify with than dreamy, distant Mastercard. That's somewhat compatible with diversity, as in being for everyone, but the choice for Visa is rather a statement against Mastercard than strongly triggered by the brand itself.
The choice for Visa is rather a statement against Mastercard than strongly triggered by the brand itself.
All this nicely shows that branding is not only about translating characteristics into touchpoints; it should also include awareness of the fact that the audience has a specific identity, too, and this influences how things are interpreted – and valuated, eventually.
Internal Culture vs. External Brand
A very last thing worth noting is that Visa, "the inclusive brand that wants to connect people" rates remarkably low on employer review platforms, in terms of diversity and company culture. Apparently, they only refer to the network of customers – not that of own employees. For the "possibilities brand" Mastercard, in its turn, one can imagine being authentic could mean it offers its employees opportunities, space for positive experiences. When being asked "Does your current company provide you meaningful opportunities [...]?", almost half say it doesn't. So for both brands, there seems to be some mismatch between external understanding of the organization and the internal way of doing things – at least for the brand essentials.
All Insights in a Nutshell
I started this article by stating that companies that share a similar offering have to focus on emotional benefits in order to strengthen their brands. Mastercard and Visa got rebranded as "making dreams come true" and "the payment network", respectively, meaning the former seems to have created the more emotion-targeted strategy from the start. When translating the essence into the website touchpoint, Mastercard managed to create a more focused and unified image than Visa. Moreover, people tend to get the "possibilities" point of the brand, whereas the network message of Visa doesn't get further than being understood as user-friendly and inclusive. Mastercard customers tend to appreciate the well-articulated priceless possibilities that the brand offers. People who choose Visa don't mention that they love to join the network; they simply prefer the brand that occurs more down-to-earth to them – nice, but I don't think that has quite been the rebrand's purpose, nor is it making the brand the most desired one in its category. Last but no least, as for the alignment of internal- and external-facing activities, eventually strengthening brands, both organizations certainly still have room for improvement. You see, there can be a lot of magic behind a plastic card.