Shelving the 12-year-old tag line "It pays to Discover," Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co. is changing the emphasis in its advertising.
A new campaign, created by an ad agency that the company's Discover Financial Services Inc. unit hired in March, is the first that does not focus on the Discover card's cash-back reward feature. Cardholders get rebates based on a sliding-scale percentage of their annual purchase volume.
The new slogan, "There's always something more to Discover," is meant to portray a broader scope of card benefits and can easily be adapted to fit different features, according to executives at Discover.
Discover said it is seeking a more modern image and wants to combat consumer perceptions that its card has a low merchant-acceptance rate and few features beyond rebates.
"In the past we had focused on 'no annual fee' and 'cash-back bonus,' but the industry over the last five to seven years has copied that, so it's not as unique as it used to be," said Cathy Davis, vice president of advertising and brand management at Discover. "We felt it was important that we go beyond that and offer additional products and services to our customers to make the card more relevant."
The advertisements, which had their television debut on Sept. 13, mark a shift in Discover's branding strategy and reflect changes made at the Riverwoods, Ill., company since its president, former MBNA Corp. executive David W. Nelms, was hired a year ago. He was given the task of boosting market share.
In April, Mr. Nelms announced a major effort to attract merchants by offering lower fees than those charged by MasterCard, Visa, and American Express. Various retail constituencies, such as restaurants, have been targeted as part of various efforts to broaden Discover's acceptance network, known as Novus.
Discover said it signed 138,000 new merchants during the second quarter and plans to add at least 350,000 more by yearend. It says it has three million merchant and cash-access locations, all in the United States; by comparison, Visa says it has 16 million globally.
Discover has "been closing the acceptance gap very quickly, and we need to do a better job communicating to our customers how good the Discover card acceptance is," said Roger Hochschild, Discover's executive vice president of business development.
Four of Discover's commercials debuted this week and another four will start running in November. A spot scheduled for November uses humor to try to tell consumers that Discover is accepted more places than they think; only one of the eight spotlights the cash-back rebate.
One ad spoofs a "Mission Control" scenario that is set off when someone wants to pay with a credit card other than Discover. Once the card is swiped, a blinking light notifies the credit card company that a transaction is taking place, and because the cardholder's last payment was half a day late, his interest rate is raised automatically.
Another commercial focuses on the Internet. Discover has been working on on-line customer service, and said its goal is to be the "number one card for the Internet." A new service, "Discover Interactive," was unveiled last week, which sends cardholders electronic reminders that their bills are due or they have reached their credit limit.
In another 60-second spot, parents give their son a credit card on his first day at college and tell him only to use it for emergencies. The student is next seen rationalizing how buying pizza, taking a fancy ski trip, and shopping for new clothes can be seen as "emergencies." The commercial ends with the student answering his door in a brand new scuba suit, only to find his father holding the credit card bill. Viewers are then given information about a booklet, "How Credit Cards Work," that Discover will release in October.
Industry observers say they have been waiting for Discover's ads to indicate how the new management team is asserting itself. Last year's campaign, which played up the cash-back feature and used the tag line, "Discover the feeling again and again," did not excite passions either among consumers or on Madison Avenue.
The agency that created those ads, DDB Needham in Chicago, was replaced this year by Goodby, Silverstein & Partners of San Francisco. Discover spent six months conducting focus groups and other consumer interviews across the United States in preparation for the campaign, Ms. Davis said.
"We found that there is a lot of dissatisfaction with the credit card category now," Ms. Davis said. "If you look at Visa and MasterCard, they really can't make specific claims on services or products, because they can't guarantee that the banks will deliver on them."
"This whole campaign is about linking the Discover brand to specific features and benefits that are most valuable to consumers," Mr. Hochschild said. Analysts said the new campaign was sorely needed.
"They need to redefine themselves, freshen their image, update who they are, and bring it beyond the one-dimensional image they've had for so long," said Steven J. Smith, president of S.J. Smith & Associates, a consulting firm in Scarsdale, N.Y. "They are a real force in the market, the question is how do they evolve with the market?"
Mr. Smith said Discover's merchant acceptance problems are "both real and perceived. They do have coverage almost everywhere you use the card, but they don't have coverage everywhere."
Mr. Smith said the fact that Discover can only be used in the United States "is limiting, and relegates it to second-card status permanently."
In a recent deal with MasterCard International, Discover's parent company has begun issuing cards in the United Kingdom under the Morgan Stanley Dean Witter name. The cards bear the MasterCard acceptance mark and work anywhere in the world that MasterCard is taken. Discover cardholders in the United States do not get reciprocal privileges.
Gary Gordon, managing director at PaineWebber Inc. in New York, said Discover needs to shift its strategy from providing a spending card -- which the cash-back feature targets -- to providing a borrowing card.
"It's much harder" to bring in revenue "with a spending card for the middle-class," Mr. Gordon said. "You've got to get people to borrow, because they can't generate enough with just interchange income."