Relationships can reap great rewards but they need constant effort to
keep them going strong, writes Alex Thomas
The dictionary definition of the word ‘affinity’ is ‘natural liking,
taste or inclination for a person or thing’. Defining the term ‘affinity
card’ is more difficult.
Is it an advertisement on a credit card or a loyalty device? Depending
on how it is used, it can be both.
Since the Royal Bank of Scotland and NSPCC launched them onto the UK
market in 1990, affinity cards have grown at an exponential rate. There
are now 1.5 million in issue, which is 5% of all credit cards, according
to the Credit Card Research Group.
There is no reliable data on the number of affinity card types or
brands, but CCRG head of research Peter Welsh says there are ‘literally
hundreds’ - figures as high as 700 are regularly quoted. There are cards
for sailors, football fans, civil servants, the police, doctors, lawyers
and teachers, newspapers, TV stations, car owner clubs, charities and
If the American experience is anything to go by, there is plenty of
scope for further expansion over here. Affinity cards represent 30% of
all US credit cards in issue.
Worthy of credit?
According to their promoters, affinity cards are packed with benefits:
revenue, enhanced customer loyalty, a higher profile and a constant
brand reminder - all for free. Not to mention opportunities for data-
The problem is that there are now so many affinity cards their power as
marketing devices is in danger of being diluted.
Hamish Pringle, chairman of K Advertising, the agency that spawned the
daddy of all affinity cards, the GM Card, says: ‘There is only so much
room in someone’s wallet and only so many cards that people are willing
to carry. Once we have got the card into someone’s wallet, we have got
to make sure that it is used.’
This explains GM’s spectacular pounds 15m launch of the card in 1994.
‘One of the main reasons we took this approach was that we feared that
as soon as we had demonstrated the power of the concept, everyone else
would be jumping in the market,’ explains Pringle.
Vauxhall claims the card now has almost 700,000 members. It is even
credited with helping to rejuvenate demand for credit cards and helping
to increase the amount spent on them. Spending grew by over 9% in 1994,
up from under 7% in the year before its launch.
The GM card may have found a niche and exploited it, but the plethora of
cards launched in its wake have to offer something radically different
in order to have any impact. Marcus Evans, managing director of the
Ogilvy Loyalty Centre, says: ‘At the moment companies are lacking the
big idea. Things have got to the stage where the consumer sees an
affinity card and says so what?’
Companies have to build real benefits for the consumer into the card,
says Evans. They derive revenue from a joining fee for each new customer
and get a percentage of the amount subsequently spent on the card. In
return, holders are often offered better deals than high street banks
and traditional credit cards can give.
This is great, says Evans, but companies must continue to innovate if a
card is going to build real loyalty. ‘The card is just the start. You
have to give good emotional reasons to continue using it,’ he says.
The appeal of affinity cards for charitable organisations is obvious:
they are an effort-free means of generating donations as the charity’s
cut is automatically deducted. It is similar for universities, societies
and associations. But again, charities should not think that
contributing to a good cause is the only motive behind a card.
Evans argues that they should try and build in added benefits:
‘Charities are not working hard enough. They should be saying this is
good for you and for us - that would be a breakthrough.’
Affinity cards may be a way of getting your brand name into a consumer’s
hip pocket, but their real value is as an on-going communication
channel. Monthly statements provide a means of communicating with
customers through statement message and promotional inserts.
‘Affinity cards are a long-term relationship, not a one-night stand,’
says Beneficial Bank group vice- president Jan Stefanowicz. The cards,
he says, are more than loyalty vehicles: ‘If I want just loyalty, I’d
get a dog.’
However, International Customer Loyalty Programmes managing director
Tony Clarke says affinity does not translate into loyalty: ‘Affinity
cards can’t and won’t stand alone as the basis for loyalty programmes.’
Unless companies are careful, affinity cards can end up diminishing, not
enhancing loyalty. One anonymous marketer signed up for the Royal Bank
of Scotland’s Fine Wine card, looking forward to receiving special
offers on wine and a free subscription to Decanter magazine. Fourteen
months later, none of the offers had been fulfilled, turning the
cardholder off the bank and affinity cards in general.
Caroline Kimber, director of direct marketing for CACI, warns: ‘People’s
expectations are higher with affinity cards than credit cards, so if
they fail to deliver, the net effect can be very damaging.’