At its debut, critics scoffed at the prospects for a cobranded Mercedes-Benz credit card-issued as a standard product rather than gold or platinum.
But six months after the card's introduction, both the auto company and the card issuer, Capital One Financial Corp., say the program is thriving.
Capital One declined to give specific numbers, but said the card has "significantly performed above industry averages" in both response rates and card usage.
The Visa card represents a joint venture between Capital One and Mercedes-Benz Credit Corp., the financial services unit of Daimler-Benz North America Corp.
Instead of offering the traditional points-based benefits of cobranded programs, the card gives consumers access to limited offers, discounts, and sweepstakes.
For instance, each time a consumer buys something with the card, he or she is automatically entered into a sweepstakes, gaining a chance to win a big prize.
The drawing for the first sweepstakes was held last month. Stacey Handy of San Antonio won a free one-year lease of a Mercedes-Benz SL500.
The second sweepstakes-to be concluded in November-will award a one-year lease for a Mercedes-Benz M-Class sport utility vehicle.
A third competition will roll off the ramp in September. Three grand- prize winners will each receive two first-class airfare tickets to Germany, a tour of a Mercedes-Benz manufacturing plant, and a weeklong vacation in the Alps. Hotel rooms are included, as is spending money and use of a Mercedes-Benz during the trip.
Paul J. Cusenza, vice president of value-added alliances for Capital One of Falls Church, Va., said the program's key dimensions are the cachet of the Mercedes-Benz logo and the fact that Capital One only mails pre- approved card offers to Mercedes-Benz owners.
"Our customers have utilized the card in over 70 countries around the world," said Whit Goodrich, director of credit card operations for Mercedes-Benz Credit Corp. in Atlanta. "From their spending behavior, we were able to determine which offers would drive value for our cardholders."
Other recently introduced benefits of the card include complimentary tickets to the PGA Tour Championship golf tournament in Atlanta, and discounts on Mercedes-branded merchandise.
Later this summer, Capital One plans to announce an alliance with a U.S. airline that will offer a promotion to Mercedes-Benz cardholders. For three months, cardholders will be able to gain a first- class upgrade on certain routes.
The card's apparent success has impressed some former critics, who last November said the Mercedes brand was better suited to a gold or platinum card.
Some of those people now say the Mercedes-Benz credit card may have hit on a clever way to attract upscale consumers without having to guarantee specific benefits.
Visa and MasterCard have minimum requirements-such as credit limits and enhancements-for all their branded gold and platinum products.
"It seems counterintuitive that a classic card would work for a Mercedes-Benz audience," said Frances M. Dale, president of the Sterling, Va.-based consulting firm, Entandem. "But value proposition has a very strong pull, and in many cases, it has a stronger pull than the card product."
Ms. Dale said issuers are beginning to rely more heavily on sweepstakes to motivate consumers to use their cards.
If card partners are providing a strong value proposition-as Capital One and Mercedes are-it can be prohibitively expensive for them to simultaneously offer the enhancements required for gold and platinum cards, Ms. Dale said.
"The exception to that is the airline cards-but they have an annual fee to offset those costs," she said.
Capital One said Mercedes-Benz cardholders are being offered platinum- type benefits on a standard card.
Stanley W. Anderson, president of Anderson & Associates, Arvada, Colo., still expressed skepticism. He said a standard card product does not match the "snob appeal" of the Mercedes-Benz brand.
"If you buy a Mercedes and you want to put in seat cushions, do you put in a cheap imitation vinyl or do you put in leather?" Mr. Anderson asked.