SunTrust Banks Inc. is pulling on its credit card customers' purse strings by tugging at their heartstrings.

A lineup of country music stars to rival the Grand Ole Opry graces the banking company's "Cool Country" Visa cards. Among the 11 featured artists: Reba McEntire, Billy Ray Cyrus, and Brooks & Dunn.

All of the stars are customers of SunTrust's music industry division on Nashville's Music Row, the former Third National Bank.

It was the "great relationship the bank has with the stars which afforded the opportunity for the cards," said James Rasmussen, chairman and chief executive of SunTrust Bankcard, Orlando, which issues the cards.

And the timing couldn't have been more perfect. Country music is resurging with new stars joining old favorites. The bank is courting some of the 10 million fiercely loyal country music fans for its cardholder base - with considerable success so far, it says. A television commercial generated "tens of thousands" of phone calls, and SunTrust expects to garner 50,000 cardholders by 1997, the Atlanta-based banking company said.

The project was conceived by Randall Putala, president of Strategic Direct Marketing Inc. in Nashville and Steve Potter from the bank's marketing department.

In 1994, the two pitched the idea to Brian Williams, group vice president and director of SunTrust, Nashville. "Initially, it bothered me," recalled Mr. Williams, because "these artists' relationships are some of the most important relationships the bank has. Basically, I passed."

In the meantime, the bank's clients Brooks & Dunn came calling. The two, who are said to be avid car racing fans, went to a Nascar event in Bristol, Tenn., and noticed that race car drivers had pictures of themselves on credit cards issued by MBNA Corp.

The duo approached Mr. Williams and said in so many words, "how come those guys have cards and we don't?"

Because they approached the bank and not vice versa, Mr. Williams said he allowed the project to go forward.

Soon after, Mr. Williams called in Mr. Putala and Mr. Potter to design the card. The first Brooks & Dunn card issued in early 1995 bore the duo's logo. Later, their pictures were added instead.

"We saw early on that the card would be successful," Mr. Williams said. "Immediately, it generated interest with country music fans" and with singers.

Since then, the bank has signed deals with its other customers, and now has Alan Jackson, Travis Tritt, Tracy Lawrence, George Jones, Patty Loveless, Joe Diffie, Sammy Kershaw, and Lorrie Morgan.

"Country Western continues to be strong, it has more a following than it used to have," said Shelly Porges, chief executive of Porges-Hudson Marketing, San Francisco. "It would seem like the (two parties) would probably have a pretty good fit," but as usual, she added, "it depends on the terms of the card.

The no-fee card carries a prime plus 8.9% rate. The bank is in the process of moving from an affinity product to a cobranded one by October, said Karen Anderson, assistant vice president of marketing and cobranding manager for SunTrust Bankcard.

Although the bank would not reveal the number of cardholders it now has for the program, Ms. Anderson said it expects to net the 50,000 cardholders Visa requires for cobranding programs after two years. The bank's two-year commitment with Visa will end in 1997, she said.

SunTrust is advertising in regional editions of People magazine, as well as in Country Weekly and Country America. The ads feature the 11 cards and the tagline, "Carry a song in your heart and one of these in your wallet."

In June, the bank will have a booth at Fan Fare in Nashville, an annual musical event that attracts more than 20,000 fans and plenty of country music stars. The biggest push will be in October during Country Music Month, when the bank will run television advertising and continue its direct mail marketing.

One ad that ran for four weeks last October has won a Gold Amy award from the American Marketing Association, which will be presented to bank officials in Atlanta Saturday. The 60-second spot shows footage of Alan Jackson and Brooks & Dunn performances plus animations of the cards.

The stars have been reaping some financial rewards from licensing their image, but they also have created something that benefits their fans, Mr. Williams said.

"Country fans are real eager to show appreciation for these artists by having all sorts of memorabilia," Mr. Williams said. The cards - as pocket billboards - give them one more way to provide a collectible.

"It's a real trip to use these cards," Ms. Anderson said. "I've had my card travel around a restaurant."

The card unit, with $775 million in outstandings and 800,000 accounts, benefits from having a high-profile program, Mr. Rasmussen said. "We get the opportunity to reach beyond the SunTrust retail distribution channel. These cards have broad appeal across the country."

"For us," Mr. Williams said of the Nashville bank, "it's another way to get cards out there and provide another service we're extending to these artists."

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