THE year is 1981. Reggae superstar Bob Marley loses his battle with cancer; Montego Bay receives city status and National Commercial Bank (NCB) introduces the island's first indigenous credit card — the Keycard.
Thirty-one years later, all three continue to hold significance in the Jamaican landscape. Marley is a national icon, Montego Bay is the country’s premier tourist centre, and the Keycard has entered another phase of its evolution with the repositioning of its Lovebird brand.
But long before the introduction of the chirpy, yellow Lovebird Rewards mascot or the iconic sign, erected on 'Top Hill' in Montego Bay, Keycard was poised to shake things up in the island's financial circles.
“Keycard was not only a financial, but also a marketing success,” shares Howard Moo Young, veteran advertising executive of the now-defunct Moo Young Butler, the company responsible for the inaugural branding efforts of Keycard.
“Here is a home-grown financial product that became one of the most recognised brands in Latin America and the Caribbean,” Moo Young adds, noting that it was he and then-NCB Marketing Manager Jeffrey Cobham who guarded the brand in its formative years.
Tasked to come up with a name for the card, Moo Young shares, a game of dominoes and Marley served as inspiration since it was a reference to the singer's Bad Card track that spawned the name.
“Both Jeff and I sat down and thought, 'What would be the opposite of Bad Card?' and simultaneously we shouted, 'Keycard',” Moo Young says.
“And it worked because we were ready to give Jamaicans access to something that was uniquely theirs,” he adds. With a name and a completely new market to conquer, Moo Young recalls that his agency was given carte blanche and soon came up with the slogan, 'Today's way to shop' , capitalised on “the sunshine bank's” trademark symbol and asked crooner Boris Gardener to record the jingle.
A brand was born and Jamaicans were first able to take hold of its visual identity on Sunday, April 26, 1981.
“Jamaica has entered the age of plastic money, the modern way to shop as set down by the Americans,” writes Gleaner columnist Jennifer Ffrench, “Keycard opens a new dimension in spending power…”
This new dimension of spending among Jamaicans trended upwards and by 1987 Keycards were being accepted by over 900 business outlets across the island, representing a 125 per cent increase over the previous year.
“For this, NCB can be congratulated for having the initiative to expand credit facilities in Jamaica by offering participants a safe and convenient way to take care of various day-to-day expenses,” writes business columnist Raymond Forrest.
Expanding credit facilities seemed like the easy part, perhaps it was expanding Jamaicans' minds in an effort to convince them that a local credit card was comparable to foreign options that took more work.
In subsequent years, NCB sought to diversify its credit offerings with the addition of Keycard Gold and Lovebird Keycard as well as cater to the growing market by establishing a Card Centre. As market penetration grew, so, too, did the propensity for bad debt provision that needed to be addressed.
Enter Monica Bucknor, former head of the NCB Card Centre, who was tasked to “fix the debt servicing ratio” and take the Keycard brand into the future.
“We started to look more closely at the business. At the time, we never had a system that was geared for cards,” Bucknor says, noting that because the information was received within a 30-day cycle, much like a current account report, it was time consuming and difficult to follow up delinquencies.
“As we were enhancing the operational framework, we realised that we had to deal with the brand.”
“It was the era where people where beginning to loose confidence in cash due to fraud,” she says, “and at the same time we were looking for opportunities to keep Keycard relevant.”
This relevance would come from Air Jamaica, a relationship Bucknor recalls, that attracted the travel savvy business set and middle class in the '90s.
“With Lovebird, I wanted us to give Jamaicans back something that was theirs; for them to feel bad that they were without something that was as Jamaican as rice and peas,” Bucknor shares before alluding to how she would frame the next-level conservation with her countrymen.
“I wanted the world to know that this was Keycard country,” she quips.
During her tenure, Bucknor ramped up marketing and advertising creating waves in the '90s with Jamaica's first completely branded building at 10 Oxford Road, as well as buses and cars.
“It was important for us to anticipate the market, be novel, eye-catching and interesting because sometimes people don't know they want something until it is presented to them.”
Now enjoying retirement, Bucknor maintains that the market is rife with opportunities and doesn't believe that a severed tie with the nowdefunct Air Jamaica should harm the Keycard brand.
Today, Keycard is accepted in over 9,000 merchant locations islandwide; a figure which Septimus 'Bob' Blake, NCB head of Card Services hopes to increase in short order.
“Our brand of innovation will continue to define us,” Blake says, “even as we seek to create more financial opportunities for our fellow Jamaicans.”
NCB Marketing Manager — Channels and Consumer, Tishan Lee concurs, pointing out that the new paradigm of the Lovebird experience is a part of the bank's thrust to “always create unique selling propositions” for their products.
“We constantly try to anticipate our market and set trends,” Lee shares, noting that the addition of the 'follow the bird' Lovebird Keycard concept is one way of stepping with the times.
“The rise of the youth demographic is happening rapidly…as we (as a country) become more sophisticated and exposed, our young professionals are coming into their purchasing power at a much earlier age,” she says, “and this generation demands that we engage them on every level. The response to the campaign has exceeded all our expectations.”
The bird, she says, represents rewards and doing the things one loves while spending responsibly.
“We encourage responsible spending… remember the money isn't yours until you pay for it. Spend within your means.”
She is confident that the idea of a homegrown credit card is something of which Jamaicans will continue to be proud.
“It's ours…and 'Jamaican' is just as good, if not better, than anything else that's out there,” Lee says.