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The campaign is part of a shift in MasterCard’s advertising spending.

MasterCard

For 17 years in more than 100 countries, MasterCard Inc. has struck advertising gold – a campaign that is actually memorable – by telling stories about life's priceless moments. Now the company is looking to bring those stories into real life.

On Wednesday, MasterCard will launch a new campaign in Canada, in an attempt to speak more directly to consumers.

The campaign will be based on "priceless surprises" the credit card brand brings to its cardholders, such as an unexpected upgrade to better seats at an NHL game, or front-row access alongside models and other muckety-mucks at a fashion show.

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The campaign is part of a shift in MasterCard's advertising spending. Like many marketers, the company has struggled with a noisier advertising environment than has ever existed before. Ads online, on social media and on mobile devices have added to the commercial messaging consumers have always been exposed to on television, in print, on the radio and on billboards. Companies have more advertising opportunities, but it's also more difficult to be heard. Some marketers are responding with what is called "experiential" marketing – in this case, reaching out directly to some of the brand's customers to tell a more memorable story.

MasterCard launched the campaign in the United States and Britain earlier this year, and has employed celebrities such as Justin Timberlake, Kylie Minogue and Pharrell Williams to surprise their fans.

In Canada, it may take the form of a former NHL player watching a game with a cardholder in top-of-the-line seats, as well as smaller surprises such as tickets to events.

"It's a highly competitive category, and it can be difficult to get advertising messages across," said MasterCard Canada's head of marketing, Milos Vranesevic.

Visa had 40.7 per cent market share by dollar volume in Canada in 2012, while MasterCard's market share was 21 per cent, according to The Nilson Report, which covers the payments industry.

MasterCard's goal is to win over new cardholders and to increase brand affinity among its current users.

It hopes to do that with the "priceless surprises" campaign, not just among the people who receive the surprises but also by recording those stories to appeal to people who might share them online and on social media.

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"A big part of our goal is ensuring we capture rich content media … and that we can share that," Mr. Vranesevic said.

Thirty per cent of MasterCard Canada's advertising budget is now dedicated to digital, and that share has been increasing steadily.

Convincing cardholders to use their cards more is an important marketing strategy for credit card companies such as Visa and MasterCard, which make their money from fees banks pay to issue their cards, based partly on the number of transactions.

Its main competitor, Visa, has been working on this lately as well: Last year it launched a campaign aimed at convincing people to use their cards for smaller purchases more often.

Canadian Visa and MasterCard users racked up $355.6-billion in transactions (through retail and cash advances) in 2012, according to the Canadian Bankers Association.

In recent years, MasterCard has launched campaigns such as "priceless cities," offering deals to cardholders in certain cities, and "Stylicity," with deals at fashion retailers during Toronto Fashion Week. In the six years since Stylicity launched, it has gone from a few thousand cardholders participating to nearly 50,000 last fall.

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The difference with this campaign is that rather than offering up deals that cardholders can choose to take advantage of (or not), the company will be reaching out more directly to its customers. The hope is that by doing so, it can make a bigger advertising impact and keep its brand strategy relevant.

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