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Stephen J. Bartell was talking up co-branded marketing long before the term was fashionable, or even known to many in the financial services industry.

But it took the power of brand names like AT&T and General Motors to unleash the potential of credit-card programs tied to their customers.

Thanks to Mr. Bartell, 47, MasterCard International embraced the concept that ultimately led it to reverse a decade-long marketshare slide. In the past two years, the brand has begun to close the gap with leader Visa USA, whose share declined from 45.3% in 1991 to 44.7% in 1993. At the same time, MasterCard's share grew to 28.2% in 1993 from 26.2% in 1991.

And both Visa and American Express Co. belatedly have begun exploring co-branded deals.

"The reality is, when we looked at what was going to happen in the future, it was very clear to me the card market was going to enter its next phase of segmentation, that mass marketing was no longer there," says Mr. Bartell, VP of co-branded and affinity marketing, who joined MasterCard in 1988.

"Affinity marketing was the first shot at it, in going after groups of groups," he says. "Co-branding looks at groups of customers, and their purchase histories, not just membership in associations."

Each appeals to a market segment by providing rebates, rewards and other incentives for use that tie into MasterCard's new "Smart money" value positioning under agency Ammirati & Puris, New York.

AT&T's co-branded card, among the first, is now largely a MasterCard program, and the subsequent GM, General Electric, Shell Oil Co., Kroger Co. and Ameritech Corp. deals were all MasterCard exclusives. They accounted for 38% of MasterCard's charge volume in 1993 and 70% of its growth.

They're likely to keep growing: Mr. Bartell promises still more new programs in September.

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