Charles Schwab & Co. is out to show that anything banks can do, it can do better.
The San Francisco-based discount brokerage has made a deal to award bonus miles to Delta Airlines' frequent fliers who move their financial assets to Schwab. The company announced the promotion a day after Cincinnati-based Star Banc Corp. said it planned to buy airline tickets for its proprietary mutual fund customers.
Schwab officials said their plan stands to succeed where Star's may not. That's because, by aligning with Delta, Schwab is targeting an identified group of more than 20 million affluent customers with strong brand loyalty and a willingness to change their behavior to earn miles.
Star's program, by contrast, would mostly appeal to investors who have yet to join a frequent-flier program - a decidedly less affluent group.
"We've had thousands of people call already," said Robert Kalok, vice president for direct marketing at Schwab. While the company announced the deal Wednesday, it had begun running teaser announcements for the promotion in a Delta frequent-flier newsletter before that.
Under terms of the deal, Schwab will have access to Delta's frequent- flier data base and will be able to target customer segments with product and service offerings.
Frequent airline travelers' "age, income, and education levels all synch up well with our target market," Mr. Kalok said. Schwab has 3.8 million active brokerage accounts with $216 billion of assets.
Observers of the frequent-flier scene said Schwab deserves praise for aligning itself with an established airline.
"With the proper partnership (frequent fliers) could probably show the same loyalty to a brokerage house as they do to Delta," said Randy Petersen, publisher and editor of InsideFlyer magazine.
Schwab will do best, Mr. Petersen said, by homing in on the top echelon of Delta passengers: the half-million who fly the most and have the most money. Average personal income for this group would likely top $134,000 a year, he said.
Star's approach, by contrast, will likely appeal to "leftover customers," who don't already have a relationship with a frequent-flier program, Mr. Petersen said. This group is likely to have fewer assets to place with a specific financial services company, and less incentive to do so, he added.
But Star is also pursuing high-net-worth customers. The bank chose not to seek partnership with a single airline because different carriers dominate key cities within the bank's territory, an executive there said.
"We wanted to maintain our status as the hometown player in each one," said Peter A. Sorrentino, a vice president in Star's capital management division.
Schwab's approach offers consumers credit for letting Schwab hold their assets, whether stocks, bonds, mutual funds, or even money market accounts.
Although limited for now to rewards through Delta's frequent-flier program, Mr. Kalok said that plans are in the works to expand the miles- for-money program to other airlines.
Delta frequent fliers who open a qualifying Schwab brokerage account can earn 3,000 bonus miles, if their deposits reach $30,000 within one year.
Existing Schwab customers and new account holders earn 1,000 bonus miles in Delta's frequent-flier program for every $10,000 of transferred assets, after fulfilling the $30,000 minimum. Deposits must remain in the customer's Schwab account 90 days to earn bonus miles. Participants can earn up to a maximum of 50,000 bonus miles per year.
Individual retirement accounts and 401(k) and other retirement plan accounts do not qualify, Schwab said.