The numbers are looking pretty good at MasterCard International.

Worldwide dollar volume on MasterCard cards jumped by 20% last year, to $467.6 million. Card numbers grew by 13%, to 272.3 million. U.S. dollar volume was up 17%, to $202.4 billion.

Not obvious from the healthy, double-digit growth numbers is that MasterCard is losing ground to its California-based archrival, Visa International.

Based on full-year statistics from the two associations - MasterCard's for calendar years and Visa's for fiscal years - Visa's worldwide 1995 growth rate exceeded MasterCard's by eight percentage points.

In other words, Visa is gaining market share.

With Visa's global dollar volume running more than 60% ahead of MasterCard's, an eight-point growth differential can look especially daunting - or discouraging, as the case may be. Even in the previous two years, when MasterCard grew faster than Visa, the gap remained so wide as to overshadow MasterCard's gains.

The global card pie is getting bigger, but so is Visa's piece of it. If MasterCard can claim any clear advantage, it is in the Maestro on-line debit program, which has established itself in foreign markets ahead of Visa's Interlink.

The basic story is much the same domestically. In an analysis of total U.S. card volumes in the 1995 third quarter, The Nilson Report said Visa was the only general-purpose brand to exceed the industry's 22.2% year- over-year growth rate. Visa added 2.48 points to its market share, hitting 50%.

Visa U.S.A.'s 28.5% growth rate exceeded MasterCard's by 11.5 points, Discover's by 11.7, American Express' by 12.6, and Diners Club's by 20.9.

Visa, which has had the top market share since the 1970s and gained against MasterCard in most subsequent years, improved in the third quarter mainly on the strength of point of sale activity, "which is the real measure of solid growth and brand strength," said The Nilson Report, a newsletter published in Oxnard, Calif.

The key to MasterCard's future is in its brand strength, according to officials there.

"We don't focus on size," said Alan Heuer, president of MasterCard's U.S. region. "Our real purpose is to add value to the members by building superior brands and platforms."

While MasterCard has "a stronger commercial orientation than it may have had in the past" and has set "challenging goals for 1996 and 1997," Mr. Heuer said, numerical growth will be "an offshoot of our dedication to serving members."

Joseph Tripodi, executive vice president of global marketing, said MasterCard stands to gain brand power as an "acceptance mark" with a broader definition than it currently has in credit and debit payments.

"Value exchange will have more and more to do with information, not just money, especially as we move to the chip in the card," Mr. Tripodi said. "For example, the chip could be used for secure access to people's computers, homes, and workplaces. The card becomes more integrated in people's lifestyles and not just for financial value exchange.

"I see MasterCard as a great brand name that can play an expanded role in people's lives."

Mr. Tripodi said MasterCard's advertising strategy in the second half of the year is aimed at establishing "a strong, simple, global brand personality."

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