Joining other credit card companies in cause-related marketing, Fleet Financial Group has begun offering a Visa credit card designed to benefit the Special Olympics.

The Providence, R.I.-based bank will contribute 50 cents for every $100 of purchases made with the new cards to Special Olympics International, whose keynote event, the World Summer Games, started Saturday in New Haven, Conn.

Michael R. Zucchini, Fleet Financial Group's vice chairman, said the card would give "everyone the opportunity to support the important efforts of Special Olympics on behalf of people with mental retardation."

Fleet said it also would donate an unspecified amount for each new Special Olympics Visa card account.

More than 7,000 athletes are competing in the 19-sport Summer Games, which will run through July 9. The Special Olympics organization facilitates year-round training for nearly one million individuals in 140 countries.

"We recognize this as a significant new business opportunity in the credit card area," said Elaine Weeks, who manages Fleet's card business. "Special Olympics International is a highly credible organization that has very strong support," she said, and the card program "will give us the opportunity to promote credit cards in a variety of scenarios, not the least of which is the World Games."

Sargent Shriver, the former Peace Corps director and 1972 Democratic vice-presidential nominee who now chairs Special Olympics International, said the Fleet program "would help provide new and expanded athletic opportunities to our athletes both in this country and around the world."

Cause-related marketing, in which a company links itself to an issue or agenda to improve sales and corporate image, is growing in popularity among credit card companies.

American Express Co. helped usher in the trend a decade ago through its high-profile support of the Statue of Liberty renovation. Since then, hundreds of companies, including MasterCard and Visa, have signed on with a wide range of public-interest causes.

"We tend to be in a fairly cluttered marketplace - it all begins to blur together after a while," said Daniel L. Pearlman, president and chief executive officer of Pearlman Group, a Los Angeles marketing and communications company. "This enables you to differentiate your product on an emotional level."

Indeed, a study two years ago by Roper/Starch Worldwide Inc., the New York-based opinion and marketing firm, indicated that when price and quality are equal, 25% of those questioned would "very likely" switch to a company associated with a good cause.

"The Special Olympics is a powerful, heartfelt cause for many people, and ideally you want to tap into a cause that taps into the values of the company's stakeholders," said Mr. Pearlman. "It sounds as if Fleet is creating an affinity program where can it reach people who want these kids to fulfill what potential they have."

On the downside, the Roper study also indicated that 58% of those questioned had suspicions that cause-related marketing was just a cynical "show" prompted by less than altruistic calculations.

"Too many companies tend to look at these things as short-term promotions" and thereby run the risk of a backlash, Mr. Pearlman said. He emphasized that he had no reason to believe Fleet planned to be involved only for the short haul.

Fleet's Special Olympics Visa credit card comes in both Classic and Gold versions, neither of which has an annual fee. The cards offer a 25-day no- interest grace period on purchases and a first-year annual percentage rate of 11.4%.

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