MBNA Corp. has gone platinum.

The big credit card issuer is following in the gigantic footsteps of American Express Co. - and the smaller steps of a Nebraska bank - by marketing a premium card for upscale customers.

Wilmington, Del.-based MBNA released details last week of its Platinum Plus MasterCard and Visa program, aiming the no-fee product at people who qualify for high credit lines.

The platinum lines of credit start at $5,000 and go as high as $100,000. Gold card limits typically range between $5,000 and $10,000.

"Everyone today is offering a gold card," said John R. Cochran 3d, MBNA's vice chairman and chief marketing officer, explaining the company's timing. "We thought we needed to come out and have more of a competitive edge."

It did so without waiting for a more coordinated response by the MasterCard and Visa associations to American Express' Platinum Card, which was introduced in 1984. By invitation, the top 1% of the company's card members pay $300 a year for a host of travel, lifestyle, and financial service enhancements.

The one super-premium offering from a card association is Signia, developed two years ago by MasterCard's European affiliate, Europay International, and currently available in several countries abroad.

First National Bank of Omaha, with $2.5 billion of outstandings, meanwhile, has been offering a platinum-colored premium product since 1982. A bank spokesman said of its 3.5 million accounts, 60% are platinum. The no-fee cards have a 7.9% introductory rate, which bumps to the commercial paper rate plus 12%.

"While their card may be similar in color, it is the value - all the benefits and services - that distinguish the American Express Platinum Card," said Emily Porter, a company spokeswoman, in response to the MBNA offering.

"This product is not focused directly at the American Express program," said Mr. Cochran at MBNA. It is being marketed to doctors, lawyers, and other professionals capable of carrying higher credit lines.

MBNA's card has a three-dimensional, hologram look. Among its features are 24-hour travel agency services, $1 million common-carrier travel accident insurance, preferred rates on MBNA deposit products, and enhanced customer service.

For a $35 annual fee, MBNA Platinum Plus Visa and MasterCard customers can join a new Plus Miles program, receiving one point for every $1 spent, plus a 50% bonus on purchases each month they maintain a balance in the account. Customers can redeem 35,000 points for a round-trip ticket for travel in the continental United States on any major airline, without blackout dates.

"This is nothing more than a travel package," said James L. Accomando, president of Accomando Consulting, Fairfield, Conn. "I'm willing to bet the platinum color is more for differentiation than it is for sending the message that this is the most upscale card on the planet.

"What they've done is Good Marketing 101, which is really just, 'O.K., we're going to change the product, but also we're going to change the package."

"American Express, to me, is the definition of platinum," he added. "If you use the services, you are getting more than $300 worth of benefits."

Platinum cardholders pay prime plus 8.65%, or 16.9%. To entice new customers, MBNA is offering an introductory rate of 5.9% good for five months on cash advances and balance transfers.

MBNA America Bank has become the third-largest credit card issuer by developing affinity relationships with 4,100 organizations, bringing in more than 18 million cardholders.

"I assume the market growth rate will slow," said Susan Roth, an analyst with Bear, Stearns & Co. "That, plus the law of large numbers for an issuer like MBNA or First USA, means you've got to continue to come up with new twists to keep existing products fresh and new products to broaden your target market."

Robert B. McKinley, president of Ram Research Group, said the high credit limit may pose a fraud risk, which has deterred other issuers from raising their limits so high. "The concern has been, do you want customers walking around with $100,000 limits? Someone could do a lot of (fraud) damage before they shut them down."

He also said a cardholder would have to earn $500,000 or more to get the maximum credit limit, so the majority of MBNA platinum customers will settle for the lower limits.

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