A few months ago, MasterCard International blitzed the Boston area with a monthlong debit promotion designed to boost usage and awareness of Maestro and MasterDebit.

Visa International has arrived in North Carolina this month to do the same with its Interlink on-line debit program.

Both card associations have deemed debit growth important. Instead of blanketing the nation to get the message out to consumers, they have targeted regions that have a critical penetration of cards in consumers' hands and merchants that accept them.

One to a Customer

Because Visa has a rule that financial institutions can issue only one brand of debit, issuers must choose between Interlink/Visa Check or Maestro/MasterCard Debit. By the time Visa and MasterCard come in with their integrated marketing promotions, half the battle is over.

The second challenge -- getting cardholders to use debit at the point of sale -- has just begun.

Visa's promotion targets Raleigh/Durham, Charlotte, and Greensboro/Winston-Salem -- areas that have a strong penetration of Interlink cards and merchants that accept them, said Vicki Hall, vice president of marketing for Interlink.

First Union National Bank, First Citizens Bank, State Employees' Credit Union, and Marine Federal Credit Union, plus three retailers and Southeast Switch's regional automated teller machine network, Honor, will participate in the promotion.

More than one million Interlink cardholders will be urged to use their Interlink cards at 540 Kroger, Circle K and Exxon locations, plus other merchants who accept them.

"We know we will generate a lot of Honor transactions, which is great," Ms. Hall said. "But at the same time, we can get the name Interlink out there and build awareness of merchants and consumers."

"Anything they want to do to promote on-line debit -- it's got to be positive to us," said Tom Bennion, president and chief executive officer of Southeast Switch.

Many Cards, Fewer Users

The North Carolina market is growing by the highest percentage of any within Honor's eight-state network, Mr. Bennion added. Issuers are getting the cards out there, he said, "but somebody's got to tell the customers what the card can do and where you can use it."

Visa is using a three-pronged approach to get the word out during the promotion. It starts with issuers, giving them educational items for employee newsletters and has created branch employee incentives to promote Interlink. During the month, employees will wear Interlink/Honor buttons, and display posters and counter cards in the branches.

At the same time, the three participating merchants have been given customized sign kits that inform cardholders that Interlink transactions are accepted there.

Cardholders can also find out about the promotion through statement inserts and newsletters from their bank. But it's not the first time they've learned about Interlink. Visa came in to the area earlier with its "New Shape of Checking" educational program to explain its off-line product, Visa Check, and how it compliments Interlink.

Beginning this week, North Carolina listeners will hear two 60-second radio spots on 19 stations, prompting consumers to use cards issued by First Union with Honor and Interlink marks at the gas stations and groceries.

In the first ad, called "Burritos," the announcer playfully describes a scenario in which a consumer spends his last dollar on a burrito, then finds his car is running out of gas. "What do you do? Panic. And when you're through with that, take a deep breath and relax. Why? Right around the corner is a gas station that accepts Interlink."

Print Backup

At the same time, a print ad will run in area newspapers. The ad explains how Interlink allows ATM cardholders to pay for things in grocery stores, convenience stores, drug stores, and gas stations.

Visa will promote Interlink in Louisiana and Colorado in July, then in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington in September. Later campaigns will target Florida, Chicago, Kansas, Minnesota, and New York.

Meanwhile, MasterCard said it will roll out a number of regional debit promotions in multiple markets in the third and fourth quarters, using research gathered from its Boston promotion to tailor the campaign to fit the issuer, network, and merchant, said Elizabeth S. Sullivan, a MasterCard spokeswoman.

A Matter of Geography

"Interlink means something different [to consumers] in different markets," said Ms. Hall. "In Colorado, Interlink is the primary product, whereas in North Carolina, for most of the participants, it will be a secondary product."

In the United States, Visa said, it has 28 million Interlink cards issued by 585 institutions, with 32,000 merchants that accept them.

"Once customers see it in their own backyard," Ms. Hall said, "then they'll recognize it elsewhere."

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