UMB Financial Corp., a recent entrant in the saturated affinity card market, is offering do-it-yourself custom designs to win the business of smaller organizations.
The $9.23 billion-asset, Kansas City, Mo., banking company is working with CardPartner Inc., a unit of the London digital card design firm Serverside Group Ltd., to offer affinity programs to nonprofits and other groups that, because of their size, have traditionally been overlooked by large issuers.
CardPartner said it will keep production costs low for all parties by not preprinting batches of cards or spending money on direct-mail marketing. Instead, groups that sign up can use CardPartner software to design up to five cards, which the groups can then market directly to their members.
"We essentially turned the affinity card model inside out and enabled partners to create their own program," said Adam Elgar, the president of CardPartner and of Serverside.
"Instead of having all the structural requirements for putting together a program sitting inside an issuer, we provide all the elements for putting the program together itself."
George Schmelzel, UMB's senior vice president of card services, said his company's affinity offering "addresses an underserved market."
"It fits affinity organizations of any size," he said, but is intended especially for an estimated "two million micro-affinity programs in the United States."
UMB's program, which offers Visa-branded platinum cards, has been in what Mr. Schmelzel called "stealth mode" for several months but was formally announced in June.
Groups that sign up with CardPartner get $50 per activated card, plus a percentage of each card's monthly transaction volume. No rewards program is associated with the cards, but UMB plans to add one eventually.
Mr. Elgar said his company's revenue arrangement with UMB is "confidential" but that, "if the program is successful, CardPartner is successful."
UMB is CardPartner's exclusive partner "in the U.S. for credit products," he said.
UMB and CardPartner would not say how many affinity groups they aim to sign up. So far they have landed about 30, including Guide Dogs for the Blind Inc., the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, and the Oregon-California Trails Association.
Gwenn Bezard, a research director at Aite Group LLC in Boston, said the design-your-own-card software is part of a larger trend exemplified by Capital One Financial Corp.'s online Card Lab.
"It's the same concept of having customers trying to design the product instead of hiring marketers," he said, though in UMB's case the design is done by the affinity group, not by the prospective cardholder as in the Capital One example. "Financial institutions are trying to bring to … small entities of many types, including charities, capabilities that have been available to large entities for many years."
Since late 2004, U.S. Bancorp has offered cards with selections of designs and rewards for affinity groups such as supporters of Israel and, more recently, fans of U.S. figure skating.
UMB and CardPartner do not ask affinity groups for their membership lists — a policy that Mr. Elgar said has elicited a "very enthusiastic" response from some groups.
"Typically the cost setups are so high, the issuer wants [to maximize] the response rate," he said, and insists on getting the group's membership list so it can solicit them for other products.
Despite the current focus on smaller nonprofits, Mr. Elgar said, UMB and CardPartner have bigger ambitions.
"We believe that we can actually do a better job for the larger organizations as well, but what we don't want to do is compete with the larger issuers head to head," he said. "We're not trying to beat them on price, but we can drive down on a more local level" to win business from local branches of national organizations like unions.
Western Alliance Bancorp, which entered the affinity card market a year ago, espoused a similar strategy of pursuing small and midsize organizations that got less attention from large issuers. James H. "Hal" Erskine, the president of Western Alliance's PartnersFirst affinity services division, said Monday that it now has 40 affinity groups.
He said he was unconcerned about competition for smaller affinity groups' business. "There will be a lot of folks that think this is a good idea," he said, but "we feel like we've got a leg up," in part because PartnersFirst has a technology advantage from its partnership with Total System Services Inc.