MasterCard International announced that Bank of America and Household Credit Services will be in the first wave of issuers of its new, upscale credit card, the World MasterCard.
MasterCard unveiled plans last year for the World card and other potential alternatives to American Express products at the high end of the consumer market.
The announcement last week was, in effect, an opening shot in the banking industry's most concentrated attack on the premium card segment. With the World card, MasterCard said it is aiming at a $30 billion market opportunity, adding revolving credit and other features to the no-spending- limit charge function at the core of American Express travel and entertainment cards.
Visa, too, is poised for action. Its Latin America region has launched a platinum card program. Since Sept. 1, Visa U.S.A. has been airing television commercials for a platinum card, establishing a brand identity for upscale products in the pipeline.
Though 30 million Visa platinum cards are already in circulation, Visa U.S.A. is holding off on a formal nationwide launching. The unit's president, Carl Pascarella, said because the fourth quarter is the busiest for bank cards, it makes sense to concentrate on current promotions and hold off on a full-blown new-product announcement.
He expressed confidence that when Visa does make an announcement, its package of value-added services-including a "concierge," air miles, airport valet parking, and insurance-will be better than anyone else's.
In reaching for the higher-income and platinum-prone, the associations and their banks will augment the gold cards that have become so numerous as to have lost much of their original, differentiating luster. Many gold bank card holders are sure to be offered upgrades.
Banks such as First USA and MBNA America have been edging into platinum territory for the last year, undercutting or eliminating the $300 entry fee for American Express' platinum level.
First USA, now a Banc One Corp. subsidiary, touched off a trademark infringement fight with American Express. A settlement allows banks to use the platinum color and name, as long as the latter is in a different type font than the card brand.
World MasterCard's key features are a credit line without a spending limit and an option to revolve a portion of the charges each month. World cards also offer cardholders virtually unrestricted air miles on any airline, 24-hour emergency and concierge services, travel and car rental insurance options.
It is designed to be "the only card the upscale, frequent traveler will ever need," said MasterCard senior vice president Sheila Scarry.
MasterCard also has a separate platinum card in the works, aimed more at people who maintain balances.
MasterCard placed ads last week in The Wall Street Journal and USA Today, showing pictures of American Express' Platinum, Optima True Grace, and Delta Skymiles cards. The World card was said to combine all these cards' features "and more."
Visa officially launched its Latin American and Caribbean platinum card at that region's annual meeting last week in Puerto Rico. By yearend at least 60 Visa banks in those countries are expected to be marketing platinum.
Leaving aside the U.S. platinum cards that predated the international associations' programs, other Visa regions are behind Latin America's pace. Mr. Pascarella said he anticipates at least 40 to 50 U.S. platinum issuers next year.
Edmund P. Jensen, president of Visa International, said U.S. issuers may select various features of the Latin American platinum card, but Visa U.S.A. will not require a baseline set of standards as the Latin American card has.
European members "also have interest in a platinum card," said Mr. Jensen, but "they weren't as strong in wanting to introduce platinum now."
The features of the Latin American platinum Visa include a minimum credit limit of $20,000 and a chip on the card that will assist in making secure on-line purchases. Also, the chip will facilitate verification of cardholders' account histories and track points for travel rewards.
Visa estimated its Latin American members will issue 500,000 platinum cards over the next three years. Marketing will be targeted at about 5% of the Latin American and Caribbean populations.
Lisa Brito, vice president of credit and commercial products in the region, said one of Visa's challenges is to avoid cannibalizing gold cards. Visa gold has 74% of the upscale market, she said.
She said prestige alone will not sway the most desirable customers. They will want "a product that is valuable to them."
Visa's consumer research showed upscale consumers spend $29,000 a year on plastic. They also carry at least three cards because they fear running up against credit limits or that one of their cards will be declined at the point of sale. About one cardholder in six said he had run into trouble at the point of sale.
In the various markets, up to 11% of upscale consumers surveyed by Visa don't pay their card balances in full each month.
Three out of four upscale cardholders participate in a rewards program, and four out of five have a personal computer at home or at work.