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3.6.1. Background

In mid-September 1958, Bank of America launched its pioneering BankAmericard credit card program in Fresno, California with an initial mailing of 60,000 unsolicited credit cards. The original idea was the brainchild of BofA's in-house product development think tank, the Customer Services Research Group, and its leader, Joseph Williams, who convinced senior BofA executives in 1956 to let him pursue what became the world's first successful credit card "drop," or mass mailing of unsolicited credit cards (that is, actual working cards, not mere applications) to a large population.

Williams' accomplishment was in the successful implementation of the all-purpose credit card, not in coming up with the idea. By the mid-1950s, the typical middle-class American already maintained revolving credit accounts with several different merchants, which was clearly inefficient and inconvenient due to the need to carry so many cards and pay so many separate bills each month. The need for a unified financial instrument was already palpably clear to the American financial services industry, but no one could figure out how to do it. Of course, there were already charge cards like Diners Club (which had to be paid in full at the end of each billing cycle), and "by the mid-1950s, there had been at least a dozen attempts to create an all-purpose credit card." Unfortunately, these prior attempts had been carried out by small banks which lacked the resources to make them work. Williams and his team studied these failures carefully and believed they could avoid replicating those banks' mistakes; they also studied existing revolving credit operations at Sears and Mobil Oil to learn why they were successful. Fresno was selected for its population of 250,000 (big enough to make a credit card work, small enough to control initial startup cost), BofA's market share of that population (45%), and relative isolation, to control public relations damage in case the project failed.

The 1958 test at first went smoothly, but then BofA panicked when it confirmed rumors that another bank was about to initiate its own drop in San Francisco, BofA's home market. By March 1959, drops began in San Francisco and Sacramento; by June, BofA was dropping cards in Los Angeles; by October, the entire state had been saturated with over 2 million credit cards, and BankAmericard was being accepted by 20,000 merchants. Unfortunately, the program was riddled with problems, as Williams (who had never worked in a bank's loan department) had been too earnest and trusting in his belief in the basic goodness of the bank's customers, and he resigned in December 1959. 22% of accounts were delinquent, not the 4% expected, and police departments around the state were confronted by numerous incidents of the brand new crime of credit card fraud. Both politicians and journalists joined the general uproar against Bank of America and its newfangled credit card, especially when it was pointed out that the cardholder agreement held customers liable for all charges, even those resulting from fraud. BofA officially lost over $8.8 million on the launch of BankAmericard, but when the full cost of advertising and overhead was included, the bank's actual loss was probably around $20 million.

However, after purging Williams and his proteges, BofA management realized that BankAmericard was salvageable. They conducted a "massive effort" to clean up after Williams, imposed proper financial controls, published an open letter to 3 million households across the state apologizing for the mess they had caused, and eventually were able to make the new financial instrument work.

The original goal of BofA was to offer the BankAmericard product across California, but in 1965, BofA began to sign licensing agreements with a group of banks outside of California. Over the following 11 years, various banks licensed the card system from Bank of America, thus forming a network of banks backing the BankAmericard system across the United States. The "drops" of unsolicited credit cards continued unabated, thanks to BofA and its licensees and competitors, until they were outlawed in 1970 due to the serious financial chaos they caused, but not before over 100 million credit cards had been distributed into the American population.

During the late 1960s, BofA also licensed the BankAmericard program to banks in several other countries, which began issuing cards with localized brand names. For example:
• In Canada, an alliance of banks (including Toronto-Dominion Bank, Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, Royal Bank of Canada, Banque Canadienne Nationale and Bank of Nova Scotia) issued credit cards under the Chargex name from 1968 to 1977.
• In France, it was known as Carte Bleue (Blue Card). The logo still appears on many French-issued VISA cards today.
• In the UK, the only BankAmericard issuer for some years was Barclaycard.

In 1970, Bank of America gave up control of the BankAmericard program. The various BankAmericard issuer banks took control of the program, creating National BankAmericard Inc. (NBI), an independent non-stock corporation which would be in charge of managing, promoting and developing the BankAmericard system within the United States, although Bank of America continued to issue and support the international licenses themselves. By 1972, licenses had been granted in 15 countries. In 1974, IBANCO, a multinational member corporation, was founded in order to manage the international BankAmericard program.

In 1976, the directors of IBANCO determined that bringing the various international networks together into a single network with a single name internationally would be in the best interests of the corporation; however in many countries, there was still reluctance to issue a card associated with Bank of America, even though the association was entirely nominal in nature. For this reason, in 1975 BankAmericard, Chargex, Barclaycard, Carte Bleue, and all other licensees united under the new name, "Visa", which retained the distinctive blue, white and gold flag. NBI became Visa U.S.A., and IBANCO became Visa International.

The term Visa was conceived by the company's founder, Dee Hock. He believed that the word was instantly recognizable in many languages in many countries, and that it also denoted universal acceptance. Nowadays, the term VISA has become a recursive backronym for Visa International Service Association. The term "VISA" may have differing pronunciations around the world. For example, in Canada, advertising, possibly originating in the United States, uses the pronunciation "Veesa", but the common pronunciation among the population is "Veeza"

In October 2007, Bank of America announced it was resurrecting the BankAmericard brand name as the "BankAmericard Rewards Visa."



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