A Baltimore-based petroleum company is marketing a cobranded oil card with a rebate twist.

The MasterCard product, issued in conjunction with First Omni Bank, Millsboro, Del., offers rebates on Crown Central Petroleum Corp. gasoline and catalog merchandise, and it will pad the bank's portfolio with customers who convert from the oil company's proprietary cards.

According to a new study by Brittain Associates Inc., an Atlanta consultant, cobranded oil cards enjoy more frequent use than other cobranded cards and help banks build portfolios quickly.

"The (oil companies') strategy has been, 'If you can't beat them, join them,'" said Bruce Brittain, principal of Brittain Associates Inc. "They've lost share over the years as people have used credit cards. The proprietary base has been shrinking, and this has led to a loss of loyalty."

Mr. Brittain said the Crown MasterCard goes against the trends because it offers rebate points for things besides gasoline, but that strategy may make the card less successful than other cobranded cards over the long run. He said the Crown MasterCard may turn out to be too complex.

The Crown card has no annual fee and offers a 7.9% fixed rate for six months, which jumps to prime plus 8.9% for retail purchases and prime plus 10.9% for cash advances.

In addition to gasoline discounts, cardholders can earn points toward a variety of catalog merchandise. They will earn three points for every dollar charged at Crown stations, and one point for every dollar charged elsewhere. In addition to coupons for gas at Crown stations, rebate points are redeemable for Black and Decker equipment, restaurant gift certificates, luggage, coffee makers, and electric razors, among other things.

The card also has a balance transfer option with a rebate of one point for every dollar transferred, up to an annual limit of $10,000.

First Omni, whose other cobranded program is the Bell Atlantic card, reported total receivables of $869 million as of May 22 and 925,000 total card accounts. The bank said it hopes to gain 56,000 new accounts from the oil company's proprietary base in the first year.

The card will compete against the likes of Shell, British Petroleum, and Amoco, which together control 71% of the market, according to Brittain Associates.

Blair McNeill, chief operating officer at First Omni Bank, said the program gains strength from the fact that the holding company, First Maryland Bancorp., and Crown Central have serve the same regions.

Crown Central, which is based in Baltimore and has 375 gas stations and convenience stores in mid-Atlantic and Southeastern states, will cancel its proprietary card. It will automatically reissue some as the new cobranded MasterCard, and will require other customers, who lack sufficient credit information or who may not be creditworthy, to reapply for the card. Michael Harrington, coordinator of marketing concepts for Crown, said the company is prepared to lose some of its customers through the reapplication process.

First Maryland Bancorp., Baltimore, has assets of $10.5 billion. It is owned by Allied Irish Bank of Dublin.

Mr. Brittain said cobranded petroleum cards, which he estimates number about nine million in the U.S., are used about 36 times a year, while other cobranded cards are used 19 to 27 times annually.

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