The Age of Plastic

From The Brand Historian’s Timeline: 1966

A wise old banker once told me that financial services were actually very simple and straightforward. “There are only three products,” he argued, “everything else is just positioning magic.” He actually said something else, but magic is polite.

“Firstly, it’s your money, and we look after it for you and possibly give you a bit more money for the privilege.” 

“A bit more money,” I nodded. 

“Or it’s our money, and we’ll lend it to you for a fee.”

 I nodded again, “but not necessarily a small fee.”

“Or the product”, he was ignoring me, “is just a convenient way of moving money about, which we call money transmission”. 

Bankers are experts at taking these three core products and combining and twisting them cleverly to make exciting new propositions. And just over 60 years ago, a well-known British bank introduced us to a classic example of this positioning dexterity. Their new idea was launched in a wonderfully risqué cinema ad – at least by the standards of our more progressive if puritanical days. It featured a gorgeous girl, dressed only in a bikini, sauntering around town, with a little bit of plastic peeking from her swimsuit bottoms. This was a credit card. “All a girl needs when she goes shopping” – we were told.

It was 1966, England was about to win the World Cup, The Beatles were riding high in the charts, and innovation was in the air, exemplified by the small plastic card that we soon learned was called Barclaycard, the white, blue and tan flagship of the Age of Plastic. The origins of Barclaycard owe much to the success in the USA of the Bank of America’s BankAmericard, the category pioneer which had found a way of offering business folk a line of credit for all their travel and entertaining expenses, which was then repaid every month. The idea of charge cards (like sex) came to Britain in 1963 with Diners Club and American Express, which launched their versions. Three years later, Barclays, probably the raciest of the UK’s banking establishment, launched its version. Initially this was to be a charge card, too but in 1967, on the back of some smart systems’ fancy footwork, it became a revolving credit card and pretty much had the market to itself until Access was launched in 1972.

Barclaycard’s successful launch was in large part due to innovative marketing techniques: consumers were persuaded by the thousand to put plastic into their wallets via mass mailshots containing ready-to-use cards, giant point of sale displays in outdoor spaces and a veritable army of Barclaycard girls who delivered the shock and awe with a smile. 

As the market grew, if slowly at first, the serious business of spending money with Barclaycard was promoted using the gentle bonhomie of the well-travelled Alan Whicker before moving on to comedy heavyweights like Dudley Moore and Rowan Atkinson. Their madcap humour helped to normalize this new spending habit. Barclaycard, now based in a former shoe factory in Northampton, became the Death Star of Data, amassing info from customers and merchants, many of whom had been persuaded to pay for the privilege of being part of the Barclaycardworld. By 1972, Barclaycard was sending monthly bills to 1.7 million people and was now making a profit. In due course, it would become the star contributor to its parent retail bank. Those Barclaycard girls had successfully helped launch a revolution in the way we spend and manage money, but perhaps more importantly, they also helped create a whole new language of money.

A Credit Card Alphabet:

APR

Authorized user

Balance transfer

A better way to spend

Credit card fraud

Credit limit

Grace period

M Stephens

Never leave home without it

Pin

Smart card

1966: A Year of Innovations:

Paperback Writer The Beatles

Action Man

Bet Lynch appears in Coronation Street

The Cybermen arrive in Dr Who

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