American Express, Visa, and MasterCard pretty much play in the same big-brand league, according to J.D. Power and Associates.

The company's analysis of a 1996 survey of 10,170 people supports other research suggesting these are the strongest brand identities in financial services.

J.D. Power found 83% of American Express customers described that card as one that people feel loyal toward. Visa scored 82%, MasterCard 74%. Discover trailed at 38%.

Visa and MasterCard each were perceived as "a card that can be used wherever needed." Beyond that, loyalty was a strong Visa attribute, whereas MasterCard was seen as dependable in emergencies.

American Express was "a card that provides good value" and "for people with a lot of money;" Discover had prestige and fraud-protection value.

Strong images may correlate with increased spending, said Andrew March of J.D. Power. But "the intensifying brand competition makes loyalty all the more important to securing primary card status."

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