There's a strange phenomenon occurring in the credit card marketing wars. After years of trying to develop bank-brand loyalty, some of the nation's leading card issuers are soliciting customers using generic-style names for their Visa and MasterCard programs.
Big-name card banks, including units of Banc One Corp. and First Chicago Corp., are deliberately obscuring their identification when reaching outside their home markets.
Marketing experts said the trend is influenced by the entrance into the card market of competitors such as General Motors, American Telephone and Telegraph, and General Electric Credit Corp.
Since banks can't compete in terms of brand loyalty with such well-known names, they are emphasizing the Visa and Master-Card marks instead of their own financial identities.
Mailings in which the bank's identity is obscured "may have happened in the past in small numbers but in the last few months some significant mailers have been doing it," said Robert Skolnick, an executive vice president at BAI, a marketing research firm in Tarrytown, N.Y.
A New Jersey resident recently received a solicitation for a Banc One Visa card - a fact apparent only to those who know that John Fisher is the Ohio bank company's senior product manager in charge of cardholder marketing. Mr. Fisher signed the solicitation letter, which identified him as a "marketing manager."
Banc One's name appears only in fine print on the reverse side of an enclosed application that contains the truth-in-lending disclosure. To the uninitiated, the offer hailed from Visa's "Preferred Membership Group" in Columbus, Ohio, the name used on the envelope and letterhead.
"Our research started to show that there are areas where Visa has spent a lot of money pushing their brand and we're able to take advantage of that," said Mark Tonnensen, a senior vice president of Bank One Columbus. "The card business is a business where you have to go after niches and segments. And some people really want a |Visa' card."
Banc One's generic Visa solicitations are very successful in "certain segments in certain populations in certain states," Mr. Tonnensen added. "It is a function of the type of usage Visa has in an area."
The executive would not name the regions to which these solicitations were being sent.
Keeping a Low Profile
First Chicago also has adopted the approach. In a recent solicitation letter for a Visa Gold card, there is no bank name on the stationery, only the words "VISA GOLD" and a Wilmington, Del., post office box.
The letter makes frequent references to "We" without ever saying to whom the "We" refers. "We are noted for being one of the most efficiently run credit card operations in the country," it says.
The letter is signed Bruce Gooden, who is identified as senior vice president of FCC National Bank. The letter does not even mention the term "First Card," which First Chicago has long used as its card brand name.
Why would First Chicago, the nation's fourth largest card issuer keep such a low-profile? "Visa means more than First Card does," said Scott P. Marks, the Chicago company's executive vice president in charge of bank cards.
Mr. Marks said that once a customer accepts a card offer, the bank emphasizes the First Card name in subsequent mailings.
Outside Home Market
Similar types of mailings have been sent by Capital Holding's First Deposit National Bank. The generic solicitations are generally made to consumers in areas where the issuer does not have a physical presence. People that live in First Chicago's backyard, for example, receive mailings touting the bank's name.
Mr. Marks and other experts said that more banks are sure to follow the generic solicitation road.
"Good ideas have a way of spreading in the industry," he said.
Indeed, experts said it is wise for banks to piggyback more strongly than ever on the backs of national brand names as the card associations increase their advertising clout.