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POWER 50;IN CREDIT CARD BUSINESS, RELATIONSHIPS COUNT FINANCIAL SERVICES: AMEX SELLS SOLUTIONS, MBNA ADDS PARTNERS

By Published on .

Power borkers in the choppy credit card industry have to be better than everyone else at building-and keeping-quality relationships.

These days, maintaining cus-tomers is harder than ever as rival credit card marketers up the ante with increasingly attractive signup deals, rebates and rewards pro-grams. Consumer bankruptcies are also mounting and threatening profitability, just as new technology begins to change the future of payment systems.

THE HELMSMEN

Steering American Express through these turbulent seas is John Hayes, 41, whose clout has intensified along with new risks taken during his first full year as the company's exec VP-global advertising.

Mr. Hayes oversaw the launch of AmEx's first global advertising campaign and made major strides in shoring up relationships with cardholders through new rel-ationship and rewards programs. He also oversaw the launch of a new financial services division and the addition of Young & Rubicam, New York, to the company's ad agency roster.

John Cochran, 44, is chief marketing officer at fast-growing MBNA America Bank, the credit card bank that's led the industry while relying exclusively on telemarketing and direct mail channels, underscoring dramatic changes in advertising and marketing media.

A master of database and relational marketing, Mr. Cochran's power has increased with his company's ability to beat out rivals by offering more attractive tie-in programs to major retailers, restaurants, sports organizations and marketing groups for affinity and co-marketed cards, now the industry's fastest-growing category of credit cards.

4,300 PARTNERS

MBNA boasts $32 billion in receivables and ranks fourth overall in total credit cards issued with 17.4 million accounts.

Since offering its first-ever affinity card to Georgetown University alumni in 1983, MBNA now touts relationships with more than 4,300 organizations and banks. Most offer consumers identification with an alumni group, club, consumer interest group or professional organization along with the opportunity to contribute a portion of charges made with the card to that organization.

Over the years, MBNA has snared most major sports fran-chises and college sports teams, most major universities, the National Education Association, The Sierra Club, Ducks Unlimited and many major local, state and national professional groups.

Now MBNA is moving into new affinity-marketing territory, going after marketers of national brands, retailers, restaurants, sports stars and celebrities to create a new breed of affinity cards offering perks to consumers, while continuing to sign up new organizations with fund-raising options for members.

CIRCUS OF CARDS

New examples among their hundreds of recent issues include affinity cards for Ringling Bros. Circus offering ticket discounts; an L.L. Bean affinity card giving customers free merchandise delivery or discounts on outdoor skills classes including fly-fishing; the first Planet Hollywood affinity card, giving customers priority seating at the chain's popular restaurants; and nine different Olympics affinity cards themed around different sports.

MBNA uses a precision marketing machine of more than 4,000 telemarketing personnel and a state-of-the-art telemarketing center linked to a database marketing system and a giant in-house direct marketing creative group with a high success rate.

"Face it, the credit card market is saturated, so the only way to win new customers is to take them away from someone else with a better, more attractive offer," he says.

At American Express, personalizing consumer relationships has become a passion, Mr. Hayes says.

"We are changing our image to become more than just a charge card or a credit card-we're solutions. We're lifestyle. We're answers to a variety of needs a person has that cut across the broad spectrum of financial activities," he says.

Early this year, AmEx launched a do-it-yourself investment service called Financial Services Direct, which it backed with a print campaign in May via new agency Y&R, hired to help AmEx integrate advertising for the new division with its overall brand advertising.

In June, the company launched a global campaign aimed at bringing its various products-charge cards, credit cards, travelers checks and travel service and now financial advice-together in one theme: "American Express helps you do more."

Adaptable to various markets and cultures around the world with various interchangeable graphics and on-screen text messages, the $100 million campaign is backed by nontraditional media support including heightened Internet marketing, sponsorship and more targeted direct marketing.

GOODBYE, JERRY

Mr. Hayes also oversaw the decision to end comedian Jerry Seinfeld's three-year reign in AmEx's advertising as the company seeks a new, more versatile identity.

"We're targeting a wide variety of consumers and our goal is to bring our various products to life in various new ways. We'll spend as much or more on marketing, but our emphasis isn't just on mainstream advertising. We're interested in getting our message across in a variety of ways, including finding more hands-on interactive ways to show consumers what our cards can do," Mr. Hayes says.

Examples include enhancing offers to specific customers, such as giving priority seating, special previews and making exclusive merchandise and other offers available to Gold and Platinum card holders. AmEx will also target offers specifically to college-age prospects and senior citizens, each marketing effort tailored to the specific group.

"We're reshaping the American Express brand to fit a wide variety of uses in the next century-we want to have long-term, meaningful relationships with people and we're going to build them through marketing," Mr. Hayes says.

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