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Discover financial Services, trying to rebound from several years of declining market share, is repositioning its credit card brand with a heavy emphasis on events and promotions to differentiate itself from Visa USA and MasterCard International.

The first salvo in Discover Card's attack plan is its biggest-ever holiday season promotion, an integrated millennium-theme push combining traditional and online advertising and promotions with on-site marketing at malls. The goal of the promotion is to sign up new cardholders, drive usage and lure people to Discover's revamped online banking and shopping site (discovercard.com).


Devised in less than six months by Chicago-based Upshot, Discover's first promotional agency of record in several years, the "Cashback Bonus Countdown Sweepstakes & Tour" will give 2,000 randomly selected cardholders the chance to win $1 million in Manhattan's Times Square on New Year's Eve.

Between now and then, thousands of consumers' photos, captured during the shopping mall tour, are appearing every few minutes on a 55-by-55-foot sign in Times Square; the pictures also are being displayed on Discover's Web site.

Competition in the credit card industry has become bloody in the past 12 months following a massive wave of mergers and consolidations among Visa and MasterCard-issuing banks, and Discover's future may hinge on its ability to exploit its advantage as a single-issuer card targeting middle-income consum-ers, say credit card observers.

"As the credit card category has begun to compete more on price, we decided to separate ourselves from that and begin emphasizing other benefits through promotions and special offers that Visa and MasterCard can't execute because of the way they're set up," said Cathy Davis, VP-advertising and brand management for Discover Financial Services.

Ms. Davis joined Discover last fall after serving as an account director at Leo Burnett USA, Chicago.

Visa and MasterCard are franchises offering credit card acceptance to banks; Ms. Davis said Discover hopes to capitalize on the fact that not all banks participate in each promotion offered by Visa and MasterCard.

"We have the unique ability to offer deals across the board to all cardholders through a much larger number of retailers than either Visa or MasterCard, and it's a difference we plan to exploit through more promotions and events from now on," Ms. Davis said.


Discover's holiday promotion was seeded when the marketer inked a deal in 1997 to be a worldwide presenting sponsor of Times Square 2000, including title sponsorship of a giant sign atop Times Square, just below where the New Year's Eve ball falls each Dec. 31.

Discover's promotion allows customers to enter the sweepstakes to win $1 million with every purchase made between Sept. 15 and Dec. 10. During each of those 2,000 hours, one cardholder will win a "Cashback Bonus" of $100 and qualify to win the $1 million prize.

From the pool of 2,000 qualifiers, five finalists will receive an expenses-paid trip to New York for New Year's Eve; one finalist will win the $1 million and the remaining four will get $25,000 each.

To promote the sweepstakes, Discover is doing a shopping mall tour, visiting 11 cities where consumers are invited to get their photos taken against a mock background of Manhattan's skyline. Each consumer's photo will be beamed onto the Times Square sign for 10 seconds between now and yearend.

Consumers aren't required to be Discover Card customers to get their photos in Times Square; each participant is given a code to track when their photo will appear by visiting Discover's Web site. Each participant's photo also will be displayed through yearend on the Web site.


"We're getting heavy participation by cardholders and new customers at each mall stop; people are really responding to the immediacy of getting their photo taken," said Art Barmash, director of sponsorships for Discover Financial Services.

The tour began Oct. 2 in Chicago and ends in Houston in December; local radio spots promote the event in the weeks leading up to the tour's arrival.

Driving people to Discover's Web site to promote its online banking and shopping operation was one of the promotion's primary strategies, Ms. Davis said, and future promotions also will involve giving consumers incentives to visit the Web site as well as shop in brick-and-mortar settings.

"It's not ironic that we're promoting online shopping in malls, because the Internet has become very important to our customers from a general point of view; they go to the Web site to get information for shopping online and at stores," she said.


Key to Discover's plan are the two new agencies it hired earlier this year. In addition to Upshot being named in April to handle the estimated $10 million promotional account, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco, won Discover's $60 million to $80 million ad account in March, succeeding DDB Worldwide, Chicago.

In the rival camps, Visa's holiday promotion is a rehash of last year's "Magic Moments" program, giving cardholders free purchases during 1 second of each day during the holiday season. More than 17,000 consumers are expected to cash in; last year, Visa gave away a total of $1.2 million to cardholders. The promotion is backed by print ads via BBDO Worldwide, New York.

MasterCard isn't giving away any surprise cash, but offers discounts on merchandise from certain retailers purchased online through its customized holiday Web site (holiday99.com). McCann-Erickson Worldwide is MasterCard's

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