Going for gold: Visa’s Brenda Woods

With countless brands aboard the Olympic sponsorship bandwagon, it's not easy to carve out unique territory. But Visa Canada's VP marketing, Brenda Woods, just might have figured out how to pull ahead of the pack with a distinct sponsorship property called Team Visa. The program entails long-term support of 19 athletes, as well as financial, media and sports mentoring from financial advisors and retired Olympic athletes like runner Bruny Surin. Visa has begun running vignettes featuring each athlete on TSN for a year leading up to next summer's Beijing Olympics to foster public interest and support.

With countless brands aboard the Olympic sponsorship bandwagon, it’s not easy to carve out unique territory. But Visa Canada’s VP marketing, Brenda Woods, just might have figured out how to pull ahead of the pack with a distinct sponsorship property called Team Visa. The program entails long-term support of 19 athletes, as well as financial, media and sports mentoring from financial advisors and retired Olympic athletes like runner Bruny Surin. Visa has begun running vignettes featuring each athlete on TSN for a year leading up to next summer’s Beijing Olympics to foster public interest and support.

‘We know that our Olympic sponsorship differentiates us from our competitors. But we also have to keep in mind there’s a lot of other Olympic sponsors who have their messages out there, too,’ explains Woods. ‘[What separates us is that] we’re there for the long haul.’

She says the mandate of Team Visa – helping amateur athletes achieve their Olympic dreams – is in line with Visa’s core brand message of giving people the ability to make things happen. The program was first developed for the Torino Winter Olympics last year, and is now being stepped up for Beijing.

Woods is very focused on leveraging sponsorships in a unique way. In 1996, she led Visa’s sponsorship of the Toronto International Film Festival. ‘We have a lot of support sponsorships, and we wanted to reach a different audience in a different way. So we worked with the festival to provide cardholders’ benefits,’ she says. Since what people find most valuable at the fest is getting tickets, the program sets aside a certain number of tickets exclusively for Visa cardholders. ‘What we’re looking for is a meaningful link,’ says Woods. The program is still going strong, and will be in place at next month’s festival.

Last year, Visa ran a similar pilot program at Montreal’s Just for Laughs Comedy Film Festival, Comedia. It was deemed a success, and this year’s sponsorship for the July festival was stepped up a notch, with Visa signing on as the presenting sponsor.

With an increasingly competitive landscape that includes the arrival of Capital One, Woods and her team have had to get crafty about how Visa – which has over 29 million cards issued in Canada – maintains its growth rate.

In the 2002 holiday season, Woods launched the ‘Win What You Buy’ program, which proved to be very popular. During the launch year, one person a day won their Visa purchases from the previous month.

‘Our competitive environment became much more intense…so we thought: ‘What can be the one thing that can tie all of our promotions together?” she recalls. ‘[Our research showed] the number-one prize, other than cash, was this idea of winning what you’ve already bought.’

Woods says the program was extremely well received. ‘Now we use it more tactically, like around the holiday season.’

Woods is also focused on identifying under-tapped segments in which to foster growth. Last year, Visa launched a campaign pushing card use at grocery stores. ‘It’s a segment where people knew they could use Visa [but weren't doing often],’ says Woods. ‘We did some research, and tested, for example, Win What You Buy. But it wasn’t a strong enough incentive to change behaviour, while winning free groceries for a year was.’ The grocery focus has been supported by creative media executions by Toronto-based AOR Leo Burnett, including transit shelters filled with grocery items.

Woods, who holds a bachelor of commerce degree from the University of Guelph and an MBA (marketing) from the University of Western Ontario, honed her tactical marketing skills when she began her career in 1986 at Kraft, where she worked on brands like Shake ‘N Bake and Kraft cheese. ‘In the U.S., there was the whole shredded and sliced category that was very developed. But it hadn’t taken off the same way in Canada,’ she recalls. To boost their presence, Woods worked with retailers on shelving realignments to land more prime real estate for the cheese products, and as a result the shredded and sliced category caught on.

Woods opted to move from packaged goods to Visa in 1992 for a chance to work on a major brand that does its own Canadian-specific marketing. But the shift to financial services wasn’t without its challenges – she really felt the pressure to prove that each initiative she undertook had a worthy ROI. ‘At the time, marketing wasn’t as accepted as a fundamental part of the business as it was in CPG,’ she recalls. ‘In financial services, [marketing] isn’t the typical career path to the top.’

She has managed to work her way very close to the top at Visa, where she now reports to president Derek Fry since becoming a VP in 1999. Her leadership style is collaborative. ‘Everyone should feel that they have an important role,’ she says. ‘I think it’s very important that everyone has an understanding of the business.’ She adds that she includes Leo Burnett as much as possible, with the caveat: ‘[Financial institutions] have a need to be secretive. Everybody has to work within those constraints.’

‘She’s very good at bringing people in and has consistently treated us as true partners,’ says Karen Tilley, SVP, director, client services at Leo Burnett.

Gallant Law, Visa’s director of sponsorships and brand, agrees. ‘She’s very fair and very supportive of your ideas if you present a good case for them,’ he says, adding that Woods got behind the Team Visa Olympics idea immediately and helped him ‘blow it out’ into something even bigger than he’d pitched.

While the Beijing efforts are just rolling out now, Woods and her team are already thinking ahead to the much-anticipated Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics. But, in keeping with the category’s secretive nature, all parties are mum about what to expect.

FIVE QUESTIONS

Most bulletproof brand out there right now

Kraft. They have taken a brand that has been around for long time and kept it relevant to consumers.

First job

Salad girl at a summer resort.

What’s the number-one thing you look for in an ad agency?

Partnership and a desire to understand our business.

Favourite way to unwind

Watching my kids’ hockey games.

What keeps you up at night?

How to show return on marketing investments.