Bankers were so heavily outnumbered by potential corporate partners at last week's cobranding conference in Atlanta that Visa U.S.A.'s Francine Schall wondered, "Where are they hiding?"

Companies as diverse as Chrysler Corp., Kraft Foods, and the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission came to monitor the competition, or to jump-start their own programs. The small percentage of bankers in attendance could indicate conference burnout.

This is the second AIC-sponsored cobranding conference in less than six months, with a third planned in May. Executive Enterprises recently hosted a cobranding conference in Orlando with only 30 attendees.

Ms. Schall, Visa's executive vice president of member relations, said the AIC event broke little new ground. She complained that the numerous conferences were becoming a distraction: "Sooner or later people who want to do cobranding have to stay at home and watch their programs."

Still, networking was high on the agenda, and some presentations offered the novice pertinent information on the pros and cons of the popular card marketing ploy.

Speakers told the small group of 65 attendees that "home runs" like the General Motors MasterCard may no longer be achievable, but potentially successful programs are still available.

As in the attendance list, the speakers roster was lopsided toward corporate partners. Of the two bankers scheduled, Bank One's Patrick Waller, vice president of marketing, canceled.

The first presenter, Nancy A. Doyal, general manager of Credit Card Services for Ameritech, the regional Bell, called cobranding "the best strategy for niche playing." But she told bankers in the audience to "think outside the box you're in today," suggesting that telecommunications companies may offer their cardholders more advanced payment options in the future.

Linda Beck, customer acquisition manager of Spiegel Inc., the specialty catalogue retailer, presented the E-Style catalogue and bank card program, cobranded with company-owned First Consumers National Bank.

The E-Style program is geared to African-American women, "an underserved market," she said. Ms. Beck added that Spiegel subsidiary Eddie Bauer, the sports clothing retailer, is considering a cobranded Visa or MasterCard program.

Each card association sent several envoys and lent financial support. MasterCard International was a conference cosponsor, with its logo displayed behind the podium. Visa U.S.A. sponsored a cocktail reception and a dinner.

Executives from American Express and Dean Witter, Discover & Co. were present as well.

Delta Airlines' Richard Lowry, systems manager for target marketing, though not registered for the conference, attended the Visa-sponsored dinner at the Peasant Restaurant in the Buckhead section of Atlanta. Ms. Schall said, "They're just looking, like a lot of companies."

Industry observers said Delta is considering programs with Visa, MasterCard, and American Express, but some observers think the market for airline cards is saturated.

In what is becoming a routine at cobranding conferences, the bank card associations faced off, promoting their prowess to the conference attendees.

MasterCard's Kristine Crow, senior vice president of affinity/cobranded marketing, pointed to MasterCard's prominence and experience in the cobranded marketplace as a reason to opt for that brand.

Higher transaction volume and retention rates of cobranded programs, as well as the 4.2% response rate of MasterCard cobranded solicitations, were just a few of the benefits of cobranding, Ms. Crow added.

Ms. Schall said being first doesn't mean being the best. While she acknowledged that "Visa was sitting on the sidelines for a long time," she called her employer "a clear winner in perception" and touted the "strength of the Visa brand" in launching a program.

She shared preliminary results of a Visa consumer study that reviewed 10 types of enhancements. "There are definitely ideas you can offer that will elicit better responses than what's in the market today," she said.

While most speakers celebrated cobranding's benefits, there were detractors. Mobil Oil's Sara E. Jordan, manager of card products, reiterated the company's decision not to cobrand. Two marketing partnerships, with the GM MasterCard and the American Express Corporate Card for Small Businesses, have supplied incremental sales volume without the added expense, she said.

Ms. Jordan noted that 25% of all petroleum industry purchases are transacted on the GM card. GM sends marketing material focused on Mobil rebates to its competitors' customers. "The results (of the partnership) has exceeded expectations," she said.

Mobil, one of the last holdouts of the oil industry, might be the wiser for "running away from the pack when they're going over the cliff," she concluded.

Chrysler's marketing manager, Richard W. Everett, who was watching from the sidelines, said the Big Three auto company would continue to monitor the marketplace but added that rebates - "the R-word" - undermine brand equity. "We'd rather spend our money building quality products," he said.

Perhaps the most entertaining presentation of the two-day conference was the last, from National Affinity Cards, the company that brought the Rolling Stones card to the market. Chief executive Daniel T. Page, stood before slides of affinity cards sporting puppies, kittens, and firefighters. The Nine Lives Morris MasterCard, which prominently displays Morris, the finicky cat, in front of a bowl of cat food, should be on the market soon, he said.

The card, to be issued by First Financial Bank, of Stevens Point, Wis., acts as an affinity and cobranded card, offering discounts on purchases of Nine Lives products and contributing to a humane society located in the cardholder's zip code.

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