quietly launched 10 credit cards since August, targeting consumers in certain professional or special interest categories.
The card-issuing division of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co. is churning out a new product every 14 days in hopes of broadening its customer base. Among those introduced so far are cards for nurses, runners, and teachers. Other cards target residents of New England and other regions.
Under David W. Nelms, who joined Discover Financial Services as president last year from MBNA Corp., Discover has been trying several growth strategies. It made an effort this spring to sign up more merchants and followed it this fall with a fresh advertising campaign. Affinity cards seem to be the latest twist.
"We are trying to develop different flavors of the Discover card," said Roger Hochschild, executive vice president of business development for Discover Financial Services, based in Riverwoods, Ill. "This is an important initiative for us, and it should be a significant portion of our growth."
Instead of spending money on partnership deals with interest groups, Discover is creating its own affinity ideas around pastimes, professions, and other categories. The products are built around the company's rebate of up to 1% on purchases.
Discover is a latecomer to affinity marketing. Two leading MasterCard and Visa issuers, MBNA Corp. and the First USA division of Bank One Corp., have used the approach to stake out strong positions. Like Mr. Nelms, to whom he reports, Mr. Hochschild is a former executive at MBNA.
Marc Sacher, a managing associate at Auriemma Consulting Group in Westbury, N.Y., said Discover seems to be "taking the existing models that MBNA and First USA have been using and putting a spin on them."
Some of Discover's niches "have already been approached through partners, so it would be a challenge for them" to win customers, Mr. Sacher said. "If they are smart about how they get the lists of people they use, the Discover brand is strong enough that people may look at the offer anyway."
Mr. Hochschild said the "numbers are very strong" in early responses to affinity offerings. Discover is "building off of the Discover card name, brand equity, and the equity we have in cash-back," he said.
Working without affinity-group partners "we can feature our brand rather than the endorsing organization," Mr. Hochschild said. "There is always room for a better product, and from the response we are getting so far, consumers are finding this to be different."
Some Discover affinity cards go beyond the cash rebates. For example, the Discover Educator's card offers a 5% cash-back bonus for purchases at Ramada Franchise Systems Inc. and Zany Brainy, a chain that sells educational toys.
Further affinity offers with specific merchants are forthcoming, Mr. Hochschild said. The program is an opportunity for merchants "to put targeted offers out to the customers they are most interested in," he said.
Discover has not forsworn cobranding partners. In the past few years it has issued cards with the Smithsonian Institution, Universal Studios, and the American Zoo and Aquarium Association.