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BANGALORE, India-Even in a country where the number of credit cards grows by 40% a year, Farhad Irani's only hope of competing with entrenched U.S.-based Citibank was to outmarket it.

Both Citibank and Standard Chartered Bank, where Mr. Irani, 35, is India Head of the BankCard Division, offer identical MasterCard and Visa credit cards. Since entering the market in January 1994, Mr. Irani has signed up 150,000 Indian cardholders for his BankCard Division. His goal: to overtake Citibank, now with 600,000 cardholders, by 2000.

An introductory campaign by Enterprise Advertising, Bombay, running on the front pages of national daily newspapers, drew 65,000 responses and sales of 30,000 cards within six weeks. (Prospective customers have to buy credit cards.)

Mr. Irani then ran newspaper ads and dispatched an army of door-to-door salesmen in cities ignored by Citibank such as Hyderabad, Calcutta and Poona. Standard Chartered now has the most cardholder members in those areas. Citibank has preferred to target only Delhi and Bombay.

"Advertising is the artillery that creates awareness," Mr. Irani said. "Direct sales is the infantry that goes out and gets accounts."

A "seven-day wonder" promotion in seven cities offered to provide credit cards to approved applicants within seven days-a process that normally takes weeks-or give them free cards. "We didn't lose a single [card] fee," Mr. Irani boasted.

His marketing coup-and a first for Standard Chartered in the world-was the introduction of a version with the cardholder's photo on the card as a precaution against fraud. Its appeal is strong: Mr. Irani sells 15,000 a month.

With the rest of its $800,000 ad budget, Enterprise backed the photocard with a hard-hitting comparative campaign. Double-page print ads depicted two cards, a Standard Chartered photocard and one labeled "Anybank," in Citibank's distinctive script. Citibank's subsequent complaint to the self-regulatory Advertising Standards Council of India was upheld, but Standard Chartered ignored the ruling. This action carried no legal ramification, but was considered a bold move.

So zealous is Mr. Irani that Citibank issued a legal writ against him personally for attempting to desecrate Citibank's name. Mr. Irani did not back down, and Citibank officials apologized.

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