Hear no saturation, see no saturation, speak no saturation" exemplifies the optimistic attitude at a cobranded credit card marketing conference last week in Chicago.

Some industry observers have argued that cobranding, in which a company adds its name to a bank-issued credit card, has peaked after years of significant growth.

But speakers at the conference, sponsored by International Communications for Management, disputed that perception, contending that the best of cobranding is yet to come.

"Many say that the cobranding market is nearing the saturation point, but this is not so," said Francine B. Schall, a senior vice president at Visa International, which recently entered into a high-profile cobranding deal with Blockbuster Video.

Ms. Schall cited market research indicating that nine of the top 15 companies from which consumers would consider getting a cobranded card do not yet offer one.

"While there are millions of cobranded cards out there, there are very few industries where all of the players are cobranded," she said.

Within three years, Ms. Schall predicted, nearly half of all Visa cards would be cobranded. Currently, 20% to 25% of the total are issued under such partnerships.

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It has been apparent for quite some time that single-store purchasing cards, such as "A&S" private-label store cards, are going the way of . . . well, the Abraham & Straus department stores.

Retailers who want to maintain customer loyalty will therefore require cobranded cards that integrate the functions of both private-label and general purpose cards, according to Stephen D. Drees, senior vice president for cobranding at Affinity Partners Inc., Wellesley Hills, Mass.

Chief among those functions would be the "instant credit" component that is a selling point for most private-label store cards.

"Bank cards will adopt the most popular aspects of single-purpose cards, creating the best of both worlds, such as things like instant credit," Mr. Drees said at the conference.

Others in the industry, while supportive of retail cobranding, are skeptical of offering instant credit on such cards. A spokesman for MasterCard said issuing banks might have a "risk management" problem with the concept.

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Cobranding of secured credit cards might seem akin to mixing oil and water, but the idea had its advocates at the conference.

Seeking to reverse perceptions that secured cards are risky cobranding prospects, John A. Costa, managing director of Cardholder Management Services Inc., Plainview, N.Y., argued that "people would crawl over broken glass to get this card - it's just a matter of finding them."

Mr. Costa cited a number of ways in which marketers could transform the perceived negatives of secured cards into positives, characterizing the cards as "training wheels" for consumers hoping to graduate to unsecured credit.

Irving Levin, chief executive officer of Renaissance BankCard Services, Portland, Ore., said secured credit cards would have great appeal to new market segments. "It's a product that can do an awful lot of people an awful lot of good," he said.

But many in the audience reacted skeptically, concerned that such ventures would impose too many risks on the companies involved.

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What does O.J. Simpson have to do with cobranding?

Well, nothing, really, save for a tasteless joke or two, but that didn't keep the world's most famous murder defendant from occasionally stealing center stage last week.

Several at the conference were buzzing about their arrival at nearby O'Hare International Airport, which has taken on a sort of "grassy knoll" aura due to allegations that O.J. ditched evidence there shortly after the murders.

And Mr. Costa, in making his case for cobranding alliances involving secured cards, referred to a speech reportedly made by Mr. Simpson's lawyer F. Lee Bailey about 10 years ago.

"He said if you outlawed carrying over $100 in cash, you could wipe out organized crime," said Mr. Costa. "Such an idea seemed fantastic then. Well, this is coming closer to reality."

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Any notion prospective cobranders may have had of easygoing, trouble- free partnerships were shattered by one speaker, who depicted these unions as intense and sometimes turbulent.

"Getting them to work through a business whose outcome is not always expected . . . is very challenging," said Julie A. Heidt, director of credit card services for Ameritech, the regional Bell company based in Chicago that has a cobranding venture with Household International.

Cobranding partnerships, said Ms. Heidt, are "open, honest, sincere, brutal . . . like a marriage. That may explain some of the strange behavior at times.

"Cobranding is not for the faint of heart. It is a commitment through good and bad. If you're unsure about it, don't take it on."

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