News said Costco will break up its co-branding relationship with American Express. The Costco American Express card will discontinue after April 2016. I worked a small part in a similar co-branded credit card deal. I will share some information about the general structure of a co-branding relationship.
What Is Co-Branding?
A co-branded card carries the brand of a partner separate from the bank behind the card. The partner makes it more appealing to the target customers. Costco American Express, American Airlines MasterCard, Sierra Club Visa are all co-branded cards. They carry the brand of Costco, American Airlines, and Sierra Club respectively.
The co-branding partner is typically a large merchant, such as an airline, a hotel chain, or a retailer. It can also be a special interest group, as in the Sierra Club example.
The bank behind the card, called the issuer, is ultimately responsible for the card. It decides who is approved for the card, the credit limit, and the interest rate. If the customer doesn’t pay, the issuer is on the hook for writing off the bad debt.
What’s in it for the issuer to do co-branding? The issuer gains a sales channel. It acquires a book of customers who otherwise may use cards from other banks. American Express says the Costco cards represent 20% of its loans and 10% of all American Express cards in circulation. When Costco markets a different co-branded card, American Express is expected to lose a big chunk of those customers. American Express’s stock price dropped nearly 10% in two days after the news of the breakup.
What’s in it for the co-branding partner? Many folds.
For each customer the co-branding partner brings to the issuer, the issuer pays a sign-up bounty to the partner. It can be $100 or more. That’s why you see signs and special desks in the stores, flight attendants making announcements and passing out applications, and cashiers asking you at checkout. In many cases the employee who signs up the customer gets a special bonus called a spiff.
When a customer pays by a credit card, the store normally pays a fee to its bank, the bulk of which ultimately flows to the card issuer.
When a customer pays by the co-branded card at the partner that markets it — using Costco AmEx at Costco or using American Airlines MasterCard at American Airlines — the partner gets a rebate from the issuer for these so-called “on us” transactions. The credit card fee is often knocked all the way to zero by the rebate.
Because people who buy more at that partner tend to get attracted to the co-branded card, and because they often get double points for using the co-branded card for “on us” transactions, if the partner can increase the volume of “on us” transactions, it will dramatically lower its overall credit card fees.
If the customer ends up paying interest or late fees to the issuer, the co-branding partner gets a revenue sharing kickback from the issuer. If the customer uses the co-branded card at other places, the co-branding partner also gets a percentage of the fees earned by the issuer. American Express said 70% of the purchases on Costco AmEx cards are made outside Costco. Costco likely gets a portion of American Express’s fees on those 70% in addition to a portion of the interest and late fees paid by the customers to American Express (not all customers pay in full every month).
When you count the signup bounty, the fee rebate for “on us” spending, and the revenue sharing, the partner’s cost for accepting a co-branded card is negative. It will do all it can to push you to apply for the co-branded card, use the co-branded card at its locations, and use it elsewhere. Costco goes one step further by only accepting American Express credit cards. This exclusivity no doubt generates additional monetary value from American Express.
The co-branding partner also gets aggregated data from the issuer on the customers’ demographics and their shopping behavior. The data help the partner market its products.
Because the co-branded cards often give special discounts or earn double points for spending at the co-branding partner (although it’s not the case for Costco), customers with a co-branded card tend to spend more. They already spend more at the co-branding partner before they got the card. They will spend even more after.
Who’s in the driver’s seat in a co-branding relationship? Whoever has the most sway over the customers. In most cases it’s the co-branding partner. Customers are signing up for the co-branded card because of their relationship with the partner. The partner can shop among banks for one that will pay it the most in terms of the sign-up bounty, fee rebate, and revenue sharing.
Costco is switching because Costco wants more money from American Express than American Express is willing to give. Most customers with the current co-branded card will likely follow Costco to the new bank Costco chooses. Some customers will keep the American Express card as a regular AmEx card, although Costco won’t accept it after April 2016.
If after knowing all these you get the feeling that customers are being herded by Costco to the highest bidder, that’s just business reality. Whoever can pull the strings of a large number of consumers has power. Such power is worth a lot of money. Costco is just maximizing the value of its influence.
The Costco AmEx card isn’t the best AmEx card to use at Costco or elsewhere, but customers still signed up in droves. I predict the new Costco co-branded card won’t be the best card to use at Costco or elsewhere either.
[Update on March 2, 2015: Associated Press reported that the new Costco co-branded card will be a Visa card from Citi. It means that Costco will also accept other Visa cards.]
[Photo credit: Flickr user Mike Mozart]