Despite a struggling economy and tough new regulations, credit card companies still can thrive, according to Peter Vaughn, American Express Co.'s senior vice president for global brand management.

The key, Vaughn said during a keynote speech Tuesday at the Card Forum and Expo in Orlando, is finding new ways to engage customers.

At American Express that means building strategies around "growth, customer loyalty and innovation, with innovation being the most important" element, Vaughn said.

The conference was sponsored by SourceMedia, which publishes American Banker.

Marketing is crucial in the current environment, Vaughn said, particularly the ability to convey a keen understanding of the ways in which people's financial lives are changing.

Credit card companies, he said, should focus "on exactly what consumers need, emphasizing brand values, creating positive conversations and driving real-time adaptation."

To that end, American Express has retooled and launched several new products within the past year. Its goal in product development is to "build optimism, regain trust and drive advocacy," Vaughn said.

The Zync card that Amex launched this month, for 20- and 30-somethings, can be customized by adding specific rewards programs of the customer's choosing, some of them free and some carrying fees.

The free Eco Pack program offers double rewards points for purchases made at "green" website partners. Cardholders can pay a $20 annual fee for other rewards programs that focus on travel, mobile phones and entertainment.

Social media also are proving to be effective in credit card marketing, Vaughn said; "social communities often help consumers make decisions," he said.

Amex data shows that the amount of time consumers spent on social networking websites tripled last year, and information the company gathered through social networking media helped to shape the Zync card's features.

Consumer advocacy messages are also helping Amex navigate through uncertain times and connect with people, Vaughn said. In September the company kicked off "Don't Take Chances, Take Charge," a campaign aimed at helping consumers use credit cards responsibly.

Overall, "we saw a positive result from this campaign," Vaughn said.

A combination of market-responsive product design, marketing and consumer education can help card issuers regain trust, Vaughn said.

Issuers' approach to consumers, he said, "must evolve."

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