MasterCard International is introducing two new cards aimed at wealthy consumers - and at the American Express Platinum brand that has had that market pretty much to itself for 12 years.
MasterCard plans to unveil the cards, to be called World MasterCard and "platinum class," today. They are the first new consumer card products to emerge from MasterCard or Visa since gold cards in the 1980s.
U.S. members of MasterCard can begin issuing the new premium cards in March, with banks in other regions to follow.
Such programs, offering travel assistance, 24-hour customer service, and few limits on spending, have been contemplated for years. Gold cards have become so numerous that they almost represent a mass market, rather than the high-income elite served by platinum-style cards.
But the bank-owned associations may have a battle on their hands with American Express - not just in a market Amex knows well, but in the courts.
American Express in September sued First USA Inc. for trademark infringement on a "platinum" Visa card. Visa countersued a month later.
MasterCard's European affiliate, Europay International, introduced a card for the super-rich called Signia, which carries the MasterCard logo, in 1994. Visa U.S.A.'s board in October approved standards for a platinum- type card, said a Visa spokesman, and issuers are already working on cards to meet those standards.
"It's about time and long overdue," said James Shanahan, partner of Business Dynamics Consulting, Nyack, N.Y.
The card associations "haven't done new-product development of a significant nature in terms of credit cards."
James Rasmussen, president and chief executive officer of SunTrust BankCard in Orlando, said "the timing is absolutely right."
"While the gold card is recognized at least on paper as a premium product, in reality most consumers can access one," Mr. Rasmussen said. "I think we need to get back to a more defined differentiation for our best customers."
MasterCard said it is taking aim at a $1.3 trillion travel and entertainment market worldwide with the two cards:
* The World MasterCard has no pre-set spending limit, the option to revolve balances, global customer services, and "best in class" travel and rewards programs.
* The "platinum class" card, designed more for people who maintain balances, has high credit limits, 24-hour, seven day a week customer service, a travel/concierge service, and a rewards program.
Annual fees and interest rates would be set by issuers. American Express charges $300 a year for Platinum, which hit the market in 1984.
"Globally, we've seen banks beginning to look at adopting American Express cards" to address the upscale segment, said Robert Wesley, MasterCard's senior vice president of global product development. "With this suite of products they'll be able to."
American Express will not make it easy for the bank products. Gail Wasserman, a spokeswoman, said it's not what you market, but how you deliver on the promise. "We've always known that the upscale, affluent market is very attractive. We also have more than a decade of experience in products and services, also in fulfillment of exceeding (customers) expectations.
"Today's announcement follows a number of anemic attempts by Visa and MasterCard to imitate American Express," Ms. Wasserman added.
Mr. Wesley said MasterCard will have strict licensing requirements to "make sure this product delivers what it promises."
MasterCard has a prototype for its World Card and expects to complete the design for platinum-class in two weeks.
K. Shelly Porges, chief executive of Porges/Hudson Marketing in San Francisco, said the products will serve consumers whose debt levels are higher than they were when gold cards were introduced with $5,000 limits.
Despite attempts by First USA and MBNA Corp. to use the platinum imagery - the latter has issued two million such cards since March - Ms. Porges said the associations' involvement "can establish it as a broadly branded product" on a par with gold cards.
Gary Flood, senior vice president of consumer credit products for MasterCard's U.S. region, said the premium cards were designed so that existing cobranded programs could be upgraded.
Issuers who do not have cobranded programs but want to issue the premium cards have to link to an airline rewards program. MasterCard is negotiating with airlines to help members out in this area, Mr. Flood said. In keeping with MasterCard's "best in class" principles, the goal is utilize all airlines and have no blackout periods.
MBNA spokesman David Spartin had no comment about World MasterCard, but as for platinum-class, "We are flattered. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery."