Credit cards, which pulled many banks through their most recent profitability problems, may now hold the key to one of the industry's more perplexing marketing challenges.

Bankers are looking to their credit card experiences for clues about how to project their identities and hold on to customers in an on-line world.

They say the lessons they learned with their industry's two most prominent brand names - MasterCard and Visa - can apply to the delivery of banking services in tandem with personal computer software from companies like Microsoft and Intuit.

Indeed, Intuit Inc.'s Quicken and Microsoft Corp.'s Money have come to dominate the personal finance part of the software business. Many of the banks intent on linking their services to such programs have formed alliances with both.

To be sure, these common marketing linkages contrast in many ways from the "duality" that has reigned in credit cards for the past 20 years. MasterCard and Visa were the banks' creation, and they left the banks in a strong position against American Express and a few other prominent rivals.

Interactive banking and financial services is anything but the mature business that credit cards has become. It is so fluid that, according to most observers, Intuit's seven million Quicken users - 70% or more of the market for personal finance software - are no guarantee of permanent dominance. The No. 3 company in that field, Meca Financial Software, was recently acquired by BankAmerica Corp. and NationsBank Corp. in hopes of keeping the banking industry in the game.

But many bankers fear that without astute brand-name management, they will be at the mercy of powerful forces like Microsoft, whose identity may already pack more punch than that of any individual bank - with the possible exceptions of MasterCard and Visa.

To market themselves through delivery systems they do not control, banks may have to do something like what they did in 1980s to make their identities more prominent on MasterCard and Visa cards. The association logos that used to overwhelm their member banks' names now occupy a fraction of the plastic "real estate."

Ironically, MasterCard and Visa may be among the industry's most potent weapons against nontraditional forms of competition, either as brand names or through their remote banking utilities, MasterBanking and Visa Interactive.

"The banks learned some painful lessons from the bank card industry about the primacy of their (individual) brand names," said Adam Schoenfeld, a consultant with Jupiter Communications Co., a New York firm specializing in on-line technologies.

In the absence of a bank affiliation, credit card names became "as much a commodity as Kleenex," said Edward E. Furash, chairman of Furash & Co. in Washington.

Though it is still early in the process, Mr. Furash warned that banks seem more inclined to base their remote electronic strategies on price competition than on enhancing customer relationships.

"It's a dangerous mind-set to latch on to products that drive us further into commodity pricing," the consultant said. "The siren song of product marketing traps banks."

If remote banking evolves to the point where every bank and its delivery system look about the same, with little product differentiation or value added, the business will take on the "generic" qualities of credit cards prior to the recent explosion of pricing variations and inter-industry competition.

Their teaming with influential software purveyors could put banks in a Catch-22: The very brand loyalty and marketing genius that could attract a critical mass of customers to PC banking could backfire as they level the playing field and homogenize bank service offerings.

And bankers, despite their obvious technological advances, are generally behind the curve in consumer product management and marketing. It was Intuit, founded and run by onetime Procter & Gamble product manager Scott Cook, that initiated the Quicken financial institution alliances, and not the other way around.

Perhaps hedging their bets for an on-line version of duality, all the banks that signed on for the Microsoft Money on-line banking service, including the likes of Chase Manhattan Corp. and First Interstate Bancorp, also jumped on board with Intuit.

Many industry observers believe that any given bank may eventually be drawn into a closer bond with Microsoft or Intuit, just as some are more loyal to MasterCard or Visa. But most also do not foresee any sort of formal corporate affiliation between the banks and software houses.

"I don't believe any bank will ever identify itself as, say, a Quicken bank," said Fraser Bullock, president of Visa Interactive.

Bankers also point to the clear delineation in customers' minds between credit card lending and other aspects of account relationships, and they believe software will be similarly compartmentalized. Wesley Tallman, Visa's president of products and information services, has called this the "bucket mentality ... Consumers think about things in organized slots."

"People view their relationships with their banks as (very different) from their relationships with their software," said Janet Murry, a senior vice president at First Interstate.

"People feel more intimate - a stronger kinship - with their checking account."

Gary Mestell, a vice president of marketing at Chase, agreed that "there's a difference between cards and deposits." Typical of other bankers, he noted that banks have a lot of leeway to develop their strategies because on-line opportunities are at an early stage of evolution.

But many bankers are also feeling a sense of urgency, reflected in the overlapping list of about 20 Microsoft and Intuit allies and articulated in a recent report by the Bank Administration Institute and Boston Consulting Group.

"Nearly all the players driving the development of the information superhighway come from outside the banking industry," the report said. Compared with banks, these outsiders "have fewer infrastructural and cultural impediments to overcome, (and) on-line delivery provides these players with the opportunity for further expansion."

Banks that historically would have tended to "do nothing for now" in the face of uncertainty "will need to change their traditional mind-set in order to meet the challenge."

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