APPLE UNVEILS INDUSTRY'S FIRST CO-BRANDED CARD

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Apple Computer last week finally unveiled the computer industry's first co-branded credit card, offering rebates good for Apple discounts.

But the program joins a flurry of similar offers that threaten to dilute the card's impact on the crowded credit card marketplace.

"I don't think it will have the [marketing] support or the basic appeal that will make it a blockbuster hit," said Stuart Feldstein, president of SMR Research, a Budd Lake, N.J., research and consulting company. "I'd be pretty impressed if they got a million accounts."

By contrast, General Motors Corp.'s card has snared 6.3 million accounts in 16 months, and the automaker last week said it has sold 100,000 vehicles to consumers using rebates from the card.

Citibank, which delayed the expected announcement for several weeks, will issue the new Apple MasterCard and Visa as part of its growing co-branded arsenal. The bank, long the leading issuer, has similar cards with Ford Motor Co. and American Airlines' AAdvantage frequent flier program.

Cars and frequent flier mileage have a generally recognized broader appeal to consumers, and as a result, perhaps, Citibank is planning only a modest ad campaign for Apple, especially when compared with GM's $70 million outlay.

Citibank began an estimated $5 million effort from Lowe & Partners, New York, in several local newspapers and a page ad The Wall Street Journal last week, with the tagline, "Using any other credit card just doesn't compute." No broadcast advertising is planned. Instead, direct mail solicitations to Apple customers, Citibank cardholders and others will form the bulk of the marketing effort.

For Apple, the card is designed to boost loyalty among an already devoted customer base by providing promotional incentives to buy upgraded equipment, software and peripherals.

For Citibank, the card is aimed at stemming attrition of the bank's shrinking cardholder base as it faces new, more aggressive competition from GM and others.

"We want loyal Apple customers to become Citibank customers and Citibank customers to be introduced to Apple," a spokeswoman said.

The Apple card has a $20 annual fee that's being waived for the first year, and it carries a variable interest rate pegged at 15.4%, slightly above the current industry average. Consumers earn 2.5% rebates on the first $3,000 in purchases and 5% on higher amounts charged to the card, up to a $500 per-year maximum.

Apple and other computer companies have lately resorted to more intensive price promotion to drive sales in the competitive market. But computer industry analysts and Apple said the new credit card won't reduce other forms of promotion.M

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