Dean Witter, Discover & Co. may have been late for the cobranding train, but its decision to issue a Universal Studios credit card is likely to help it catch up.

Banks have been issuing MasterCard and Visa credit cards with retailing partners for several years, boosting sales and card portfolios by offering consumers rebates and discounts on merchandise, airline tickets, gasoline and more.

Recently American Express got into the game, issuing cobranded cards for Delta Airlines, Hilton Hotels, and ITT Sheraton Corp.

Though the Universal card is the first cobranding deal for Discover, the company has been issuing an affinity card with the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. In February, it announced plans to launch a Smithsonian card.

By combining a Universal credit card product with a multiyear sponsorship agreement, Dean Witter's card unit, Novus Services, is hoping to make up for lost time.

The formation of an affinity and cobranding group 18 months ago is evidence that Dean Witter is making a concerted effort to woo potential card partners.

Carl Thomas, senior vice president, corporate partnership, with Universal Studios' Los Angeles-based recreation group, said: "This relationship is every bit as significant as the Visa-Olympic or MasterCard- World Cup sponsorship or the Disney-American Express relationship."

Sponsorship of Universal's Florida and California theme parks could cost Dean Witter about $700,000 per year, according to IEG Sponsorship Report, a Chicago newsletter.

The average Discover cardholders are "Mr. and Mrs. America," said Stanley Anderson, president of Anderson and Associates in Arvada, Colo. "They're the types of cardholders who will go on vacation to Universal theme parks," he added.

As part of the Universal Studios deal, the Discover card and all other Novus brands will also be the preferred payment cards of Universal-owned concert venues and theme parks in the United States.

In addition, Novus Services will be a media sponsor for all Universal concerts in the United States and the presenting sponsor of "Jurassic Park: The Ride" at both Universal theme parks.

Some industry observers pointed out that acceptance of the Novus brand cards lags that of Visa and MasterCard, but the deal could boost visibility.

"The sponsorship will increase the awareness of Novus," said Mr. Anderson. "When you go to Universal Studios and you see either banners or programs that indicate that they are sponsored by Novus, it is tremendous publicity."

Neither partner revealed specifics of the cardholder benefits. However, Dean Witter is expected to offer cardholders Universal Studio-related discounts or promotions for carrying the Novus-brand card.

Though the Universal parks are growing in popularity, Mr. Anderson said, they still draw fewer visitors than Disney's.

"If they are able to promote the card along with packages of travel benefits for families, then it will have greater acceptance on the part of cardholders," he added.

This is Universal's first credit-card-company sponsor. Dean Witter's record as the largest single issuer of credit cards was very significant to Universal, Mr. Thomas said.

He added that his company would look to take advantage of the large data base marketing opportunities.

Though Mr. Thomas said the agreement will focus on the domestic front for now, it could eventually bring what Andersen Consulting managing partner James S. Greene terms "a global reach" that will be "a very appealing strategic advantage."

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