John Elkins is the leader of Visa's efforts to manage one of the world's most recognized and trusted brands—with acceptance in more than 150 countries. He also is in charge of all global marketing partnerships and sponsorships.

Prior to joining Visa this year, Elkins founded and served as chairman of Future Brand, a leading brand strategy firm.

Recently, I had the opportunity to discuss with him how he uses the art and science of marketing to ensure that Visa remains the leading brand in the rapidly changing payments industry.

Young: What is the role of marketing at Visa?

Elkins: The marketing model at Visa is a different model than most organizations' because a lot of our marketing is done in cooperation with our member financial institutions. Much of the marketing is co-branded. However, there's a tremendous amount of branding that we do ourselves. We have a dual purpose, which is to build our members' businesses while at the same time building and maintaining the equity of the Visa brand for our members.

Young: What do you actually do?

Elkins: I'm in charge of global brand and marketing, global sponsorships and partnerships, and global corporate relations. Obviously, all of these functions impact and affect the brand.

On the brand side, much of the execution of brand strategy takes place at the regional level. And we have an organizational structure that's managed through the Global Brand and Marketing Council (GBMC), where the regional staff participate, and I chair that Council.

We also have an International Marketing Council and an International Partnership Council. And those report in to the GBMC. The GBMC is both a marketing organization as well as a standards organization. The GBMC manages issues affecting branding, including the exceptions to design on cards and new materials. It's a regional structure, with cooperation and coordination by Visa International.

The Global Partnership Marketing and Sponsorship function includes creating innovative strategic marketing partnerships and alliances globally, working with leading multinational corporations.

Our role is to coordinate worldwide merchant offers within Visa's six regions to increase Visa card usage, enhance the brand and benefit Visa's member financial institutions and their cardholders worldwide.

I also oversee Visa's global sponsorship strategies for both sport and special-event sponsorships, such as our highly successful Olympic Games partnership and our alliance with the Rugby World Cup. These sponsorships create unique benefits for all Visa cardholders and provide a consistent and integrated brand message worldwide.

The Global Corporate Relations function is primarily to protect and enhance Visa's corporate reputation.

Young: What do you like most about your work at Visa?

Elkins: I think the most revealing thing to me is the state of change of the payments industry within which Visa now has to operate. We have some very interesting challenges and opportunities that Visa is facing that have not been true necessarily in the last 20 or 30 years that the brand has existed.

Young: How is it different from working on the agency side?

Elkins: In many respects, the main difference is that you go deeper into the issues of an individual brand and organization. So, that's something that I was looking forward to.

On the agency side, you tend to deal with multiple clients and therefore multiple issues. This role gives me an opportunity to grapple at a greater level of detail and depth and focus.

Young: What are the ways that marketing earns respect at Visa?

Elkins: Well, I think that one thing that is well understood at Visa is that we have very few tangible assets. We are an association. So, the few tangible assets we have are things like the technical infrastructure and the settlement process around the world, in which we have great expertise and we are very well respected for.

The other asset that we have is more intangible, and that includes the brand. There is a high degree of respect for the leadership position that Visa has accomplished—in market share, favorability ratings and best-of-card ratings.

So the brand is seen as something that has been a very big part of Visa's success and something that people here have a great deal of pride in. In fact, there is an incredible brand culture within Visa at all levels—a very important aspect when you are one of the most recognized brands in the world.

Young: Now, John, you have experience on the agency side and agencies are typically viewed as the creative artists in marketing. Do you consider marketing to be science or art?

Elkins: It's very much both. And I would argue that it's becoming more science and less art. We are starting to demand greater levels of accountability in measuring the intangible nature of brand assets. And there are valuation techniques available now.

We recognize that the art side, or at least I do, is really about emotion. Brands are, on the one hand, assets that we can quantify in one fashion or another.

On the other hand, there's an intangible emotion that people have—a connection between themselves and brands. And that's where the art exists. The more we can create that emotional connection between brands and consumers, the more successful they tend to be.

Young: What about other departments and functions within your company? How do they see marketing? As science, or art?

Elkins: I think that they've seen it more as art in the past, and want to see it more as science in the future. And I think that the changes in the payments industry that I was referring to are forcing us to justify our budgets and expenditures that we make on behalf of the brand.

It's easy to quantify what we do with technology and the infrastructure we put into the settlement process. We're now asking the same accountability of our spending in advertising and promotion, sponsorships and partnerships.

Young: So what elements of marketing science have you implemented?

Elkins: We have several ongoing tracking mechanisms.

First, we have a global health brand tracker, which is a global study that we conduct on a regular basis. This tracks key metrics of our brand—awareness, favorability, best of card, activation and usage metrics. So that's one that we have—and not only continue to invest in but have actually upped our investment recently.

Second, we are embarking on an evaluation of the financial merits of the Visa brand in the role of how it contributes to our members' businesses. And we're quantifying that in financial terms. That's actually a new initiative that I've started since I've been here.

And then, third, we are constantly looking at our return on investment for, particularly, sponsorships and promotions, and how, for example, the investments that we make in the Olympics and other sponsorships are benefiting not just the Visa brand but our Members' businesses.

And by the way—we were successful in convincing the International Board to extend the Olympics for 12 years as a result of that quantitative analysis.

Young: Meaning Visa's sponsorship and commitment to the Olympics?

Elkins: Exactly. We just extended our contract through 2012. So it takes us through China, Vancouver—and we obviously had to convince our membership at the international level that we should extend it that far.

That assessment was based on some very good analyses of what the partnership was contributing to in terms of the association between the Olympic sponsorship and our Visa members' business and brand attributes.

Young: In what way do you consider risk within the formula for evaluating effectiveness? I can think that the Olympics certainly carries risk related to international instability.

Elkins: It's a very good point. Analysis of risk at Visa is something that is a science. Risk of cardholders, risk of fraud. These are things that we spend a lot of time on and the competencies at Visa are very sophisticated in managing risk. And it's not just the financial risk, but, obviously, it's the risk to the brand.

Now, we are starting to move into other areas. For example, we have taken a very strong position on child pornography, because we believe that it would be inappropriate for the Visa brand in online environments and other areas to be in any way associated with such activities and businesses—again, risk to the brand, and we think risk to the business.

So, we are constantly looking at activities that would erode brand equity and erode the reputation of the Visa brand.

Young: What would you say are your work habits and skills that make you so successful?

Elkins: I'm not sure that I'd be the right one to answer that, but I could give you a couple of things. One is that I'm very curious and thrive on knowledge, reading. I have a real passion about branding, so that it doesn't feel like work. When I get up in the morning, there's an excitement, there's a curiosity that I bring to what I do. And that gives me the energy to work hard and be dedicated to what I do.

Young: What other specific skills as a marketer have served you well in rising to an extremely high level in our field?

Elkins: I think I've had a good balance in my background and appreciation for the art and science issue. I'm reasonably knowledgeable and well grounded in numbers and quantitative analysis. But I do feel that I have a good qualitative appreciation for art, design and creative expression. And to be in branding, I believe you need both.

Young: And what do you look for in hires and promoting or advancing key staff members?

Elkins: Hopefully some of the same qualities—bright, energetic, passionate and curious people.

Young: What is your greatest challenge now?

Elkins: Right now, I have a very fascinating challenge: to help maintain the leadership position of the Visa brand—in an environment that is going to get more challenging. I think the pace at which this industry is changing is accelerating—from a regulatory, technical and economic perspective. There is a great story to be told about the contribution—and Visa is in the process of doing this—that organizations like Visa make to the socioeconomic progress of developing countries around the world.

Visa's initiatives around the world are aimed at moving from cash and checks into an electronic environment, which means moving the unbanked into the banked environment.

This is not just because that's important to our banks, but because it eliminates underground economies. This creates a strong contribution to economic development in places like China, India and other important economies. You know, this is a great story of what organizations like Visa are contributing, and I think it's a very important part of the expression of the Visa brand in the future.

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Roy Young is coauthor of Marketing Champions: Practical Strategies for Improving Marketing's Power, Influence and Business Impact.