Credit card issuers and telephone companies are working together again on formulas for letting consumers charge phone calls to their chosen piece of plastic.
The concept is not new-AT&T introduced it in 1990 with its Universal Card-but a new wave of products is emerging. Industry experts see a revival of interest among card companies in forging ties with long-distance carriers.
Bank card companies, which have gotten burned before, are taking care to structure the partnerships and products differently. The latest marketing appeals are more about convenience-one card for two functions, one bill to pay instead of two-than the promise of rewards.
In the mid-1990s card issuers raced into cobranding relationships with Baby Bell companies and introduced cards that let people accumulate points toward discounts on telephone service. One by one, the deals fell apart, either because the rewards were too rich to profit the providers, or because the corporate partners did not see eye to eye. The only remaining program from that generation is Chase Manhattan Corp.'s Bell Atlantic Visa.
Card issuers have adopted a new approach in which they act only as the billing mechanism, leaving to the telephone companies the setting of calling rates, discounts, and back-end connections.
Continued deregulation of the telephone industry and the mergers of some Baby Bells have fueled the phone companies' interest in signing up credit card issuers, whose cardholders look like ripe prospects.
Industry experts say these products foreshadow a day when bills for telephone, cable television, and Internet service are all tied to one general-purpose card.
"People are looking to streamline their lives," said Kathy McShane, president of Kendrew Group, a consulting firm in New Canaan, Conn., that specializes in cobranded card deals. Having telephone calls billed directly to a credit card is "a fabulous way to do it."
The card marketers "are doing a smart thing," Ms. McShane said. "The next thing we'll see them doing is hooking up with every cable company in the world."
Ms. McShane said card issuers are intrigued by the new spate of telephone company deals, but some are waiting on the sidelines to see how the new products perform.
First USA broke the ice two years ago with Platinum Connect, which the Bank One Corp. subsidiary mails unsolicited to households, complete with an hour of talk time. Recipients can use the free hour even if they do not activate the credit card feature.
The cards bear a toll-free number on the back and must be reloaded when they run out of prepaid minutes. Premiere Technologies Inc. of Atlanta provides the telephone service.
"People seem to like the ability to have one card with more than one function," said David Webster, a spokesman for First USA. The product is offered "on an invitation-only basis," and First USA has "several hundred thousand accounts," he said.
More recent products are not prepaid, instead placing all telephone- related charges on a monthly credit card bill.
MBNA Corp.'s Platinum Plus Communications Card, introduced a year ago, is among this breed. The long-distance service partner is MCI/Worldcom.
"Besides the calling card savings, there is conference calling, speed- dialing, updates on news and stocks, and even a concierge service for theater or sporting events," said Brian Dalphon, an MBNA spokesman. "You would be billed for what services you choose to use."
American Express Co. has a similar product-American Express Connections- marketed to students and other cardholders. The company's partner on that card is Premiere Communications, but it also has a new deal with Qwest Communications International Inc. of Denver. A mail offer that started in March encourages American Express cardmembers to switch their long-distance service to Qwest, to reap various pricing rewards.
Both cards allow customers to accumulate points in American Express' Membership Rewards program.
"Consumers are expecting more and more value from credit cards, and so we looked to develop relationships with companies to add more value," said Emily Porter, an American Express spokeswoman. The products also "help us build business by getting the incremental charge volume."
Wells Fargo & Co. signed a deal in February with IDT Corp., a Hackensack, N.J., private-label phone card distributor that also markets prepaid cards for M&M Mars Inc. and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, among others.
Each Wells Fargo cardholder will receive a sticker-with an IDT account number-to affix to an existing card. Making a call with that number instantly activates an IDT account and puts the charges on the Wells Fargo card.
The program is meant to "provide our credit card customers the advantage of low long-distance rates and the convenience of calling cards," said Leisa Peterson, Wells Fargo business benefits manager. "The calling card market is growing at such a rapid pace that it makes sense for Wells Fargo to offer these benefits to our customers."
Sarah Hofstetter, a spokeswoman for IDT, said her company benefits from Wells Fargo's "fantastic distribution network and great customer base."
"Wells Fargo customers are known to pay their bills," she said.
Ms. Hofstetter said the biggest concerns in phone card business are fraud and distribution. "The more that you can get your name and your cards out there, the more revenues you'll have," she acknowledged, "but if you run into fraud issues, it doesn't make a difference how high your revenues are."
IDT said other banks have expressed interest in making deals, and new partnerships will be announced soon.
"The banks are looking for value, and this type of arrangement really doesn't cost them anything in infrastructure changes," Ms. Hofstetter said.
Card issuers view the calling feature as a distinguishing characteristic.
"A credit card today is largely a commodity product, like bananas or gasoline," said William F. Keenan, president of De Novo Corp. of Wilmington, Del. "We can promote loyalty by creating image or utility differentiation, adding unique functionality."
Mr. Keenan said the AT&T Universal Card was "ahead of its time" in putting telephone charges on a credit card. Consumers were puzzled by the convergence and seemed far more interested in the "no fee for life" guarantee.
In the meantime, prepaid phone cards and calling cards from long- distance carriers have come into their own, making most people familiar with paying for calls with a card.
Mr. Keenan predicts a second wave of cobranding deals between banks and Baby Bells. "You'll see a reemergence of these products in four or five years," he said. This time, he said, the companies involved will regard them as a "promotional channel for distribution."
Fred Voit, senior analyst at Yankee Group, a Boston consultancy, takes a dissenting view. "Consumers believe credit cards are credit cards and calling cards are calling cards, and they'll never meet," he said.
The popularity of prepaid cards has conditioned people to believe that "one is a disposable product, and one is something you keep forever," Mr. Voit said.
He said the rise of cellular telephones has taken a bite out of the market for prepaid cards, which is already "absolutely saturated." He said people do not need any more ways to pay for telephone calls.
The ubiquity of prepaid cards has not dissuaded some card issuers from selling prepaid products to their customers. American Express has a new business division devoted to marketing these cards.
James Shanahan, principal in the Newark, Del., office of Business Dynamics Consulting Inc., said that prepaid telephone cards cater to a lower demographic, and that creditworthy people are less accustomed to them.
Connecting toll charges to regular credit cards is a good way to "grab people's attention and break through the clutter," said Mr. Shanahan, who praised First USA's unsolicited-mailing strategy.
"It's all about segmentation," he said. "Certain people will like it and respond to it, and even if only 10% of people are interested, you've got an extra 1% response rate."