When Payments Picks Puppets

I’ll bet you didn’t know that puppetry and payments have a lot in common.

They are both about 3,000 years old. Both played key roles in the development of culture and society - puppets served important roles in rituals and entertainment and conveying moral messages, and payments provided the bedrock of value exchange.

And, today, in 2014, on the occasion of Softcard’s 2nd anniversary of its launch, puppets will teach the world to, tap at the point of sale.

Softcard celebrated its second/fourth year anniversary yesterday, the 16th of November – the second year of its launch and 4th year in existence by launching a $1.5 million ad campaign with a Muppet named Tappy.

This is not a joke.

Softcard’s new national marketing campaign was launched to remind consumers that Softcard is alive and, well, tapping. Tappy, a Muppet that looks like a digital payment reader, was created by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop.

And, it sings.

It’s being used to spark consumer interest at places that recently partnered with Softcard, like in a commercial with McDonald’s, which was announced last month and gigs with Subway, which won’t be using Apple Pay. Softcard also announced that it was extending its reach to the Windows Phone, making it “first and only NFC-based mobile wallet app supported on multiple mobile operating systems.”

Tappy appears to the brainchild of new Softcard CMO Cie Nicholson, who hails from PepsiCo. Nicholson says that it’s all upside for this new form of advertising. “Tappy allows us to pretty cleverly showcase our product, and our partners, in a way that feels natural and unforced,” Nicholson said in in a recent Advertising Age article. “It’s fun, it’s social and it’s very shareable.”

Tappy has its work cut out for it.

On Nov. 16, 2010, before the days of Google Wallet, and before Apple Pay was nary a gleam in the networks’ and issuers’ eyes, Softcard (back then it was Isis) launched as a JV between three major phone carriers. Over the course of four years and many fits and starts, including a rebranding to remove any name connection to the militant terrorist group it’s had its shares of ups and (mostly) downs. Softcard has struggled to break thru in the highly competitive mobile wallet space and appeared to be on life support.

Tappy is about changing all of that. It’s an attempt to remind customers that the NFC point of sale hardware that will enable Softcard is easy to use and very accessible. And what better way to do that then to devise a character that reminds people the contactless card reader is at their fingertips. That, Nicholson said, will generate awareness which is the key to this campaign.

“Despite how often consumers use point-of-sale payment terminals, our research indicates consumers tend to overlook the hardware. Swiping is an ingrained behavior — however, mobile payments changes that experience, replacing a swipe with a tap. The challenge, of course, is that acceptance is not yet ubiquitous. We need people to look for the contactless EMV symbol to know where to pay,” Nicholson was quoted as saying.

Softcard’s biggest competitor when it went national last year was Google Wallet, but both were stuck in the mud since retailers have been slow to install NFC terminals. But, that’s all changed with Apple Pay. Apple Pay has already given new life to Google Wallet and other digital wallets, reported earlier this month, and Softcard could be among the digital wallets that get a much needed boost from the launch. “People think of them as being very complementary,” Nicholson said about Softcard and Apple Pay. “We are happy that Apple Pay is out there.”

Outside of Softcard and Tappy most people don’t think of them as complementary. “I don’t know why it’s around,” Cherian Abraham, a mobile payment and fraud analyst with Experian Decision Analytics said. “The parents haven’t reconciled with the fact that it’s a failure.” And MPD CEO Karen Webster never gave it much of a chance, saying recently that even Apple Pay and NFC can’t revive the brand. 

Jaymee Johnson, Softcard’s head of marketing thinks differently. He told Advertising Age that the new $1.5 million campaign is designed to spark new growth for Softcard, reminding people that the mobile wallet is the one-stop shop for payments, loyalty cards and retail offers are in “one safe space.” The campaign also aims to remind people that there are options outside of Google and Apple Pay.

Tappy is not meant to be a singular campaign,” Johnson said. “He is meant to be an evergreen character.

Nicholson says that we will be seeing a lot of Tappy in coming weeks via a “series of videos, photos and fun content featuring Tappy, a payment terminal mascot we’ve brought to life. Whether he’s taking the big stage at McDonald’s, hanging with Jared at Subway, or wrestling with Rowdy Roddy Piper, Tappy brings lovable humor to his job,” he said. “This new campaign was designed for social consumption and sharing. We’re reaching out to the consumers most likely to use mobile payments. As a result, the campaign will live in digital channels, specifically social, mobile and video. Our customers live phone-first lives and we need to reach them on the platform where they’re consuming information.

The future success of Softcard must rest with a lot more than Tappy letting people know that it is okay to tap and not swipe. The success of mobile payments will be about wrapping payments around other sources of value, says Webster. Yet, Softcard CEO Michael Abbott claims that payment take rates in one of the two test markets, Salt Lake, are two-and-a-half times higher than the national average and that users were more apt to engage with the loyalty apps in the Softcard wallet. But, 2.5x on a tiny base is still pretty tiny, since there weren’t then and still aren’t many places that NFC payments of any kind can be used and a big driver of that usage was transit. That, Abbott says, will change, as merchant acceptance for NFC-enable wallet grows.

“This test represents a microcosm of how the mobile payments’ ecosystem will work when we reach scale,” Abbott said in the article. “Over the next 2-3 years this industry will grow rapidly. More phones will ship, more banks will be in mobile wallets and more merchants will accept mobile payments.”

We’ll be anxiously awaiting the results from this campaign to see exactly who from the early adopter mobile payments market is persuaded to give Softcard a try because they’ve been touched by Tappy. In the meantime, we hear that Barney is looking for a new gig and could be persuaded to adapt his famous theme song to reflect the euphoria that merchants and consumers will experience using its wallet in store once Tappy has done his job.




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