If You Play Your Cards Right

HONOLULU – This happened in an elevator at a very swanky resort. I was there attending a global franchisee meeting with my new client, Diners Club International. In the car with me was one other person, an astonishingly attractive woman. And she was staring at me.

The lady was being rude, but how can I blame her? She was, as I say, a woman. And I am me. So deeply did she train her eyes on my body, it was as if she were trying to X-ray my soul. Although, as it turned out, what entranced her was not, strictly speaking, my irresistible self. It was my name badge.

“Diners Club,” she said.  “Does that still exist?”

Hmmph.

Yes, you loathsome harpie. It exists. It is large and growing in Japan, most of South America, much of Europe and the Middle East and very soon at great scale in Russia and China. Due to the benign (or perhaps malign) neglect under the previous owner, Citi, Diners Club was permitted to wither on the vine. Under the banner of Discover since 2008, however, the iconic creator of the charge-card industry has commenced a revival. For the past four years it has been the beneficiary of major investment -- most toward achieving parity with American Express and Visa on merchant acceptance in dozens of countries around the globe.

Now, perhaps the discourteous elevator crone was confused by Diners Club’s challenges in North America.  The card exists here almost exclusively for corporate issuers in a peculiar joint branding with MasterCard under the aegis of the franchisee, Bank of Montreal -- which was interested only in Diners’ commercial accounts. The deal was a tradeoff sacrificing autonomy and brand profile for a ton of instant volume. But although Discover’s and MasterCard’s networks have overnight given Diners essentially universal acceptance in the world’s biggest card market, there are virtually no personal Diners Club cards out there to accept. Furthermore, most of 62 years of brand equity went right out la fenetre.

That cloak of invisibility, as I discovered riding the elevator, is the sort of thing that can lead to consumer confusion. What a wonderful introduction for me to my client’s daily reality.

Now, you may ask, what in the world would prompt the new president of Diners, Eduardo Tobon, to seek my assistance in his new journey? It sure as hell isn’t decades of experience in banking or payments. I squandered those decades making fun of TV commercials and interviewing strangers with a microphone. No -- what got Eduardo’s attention was my assertion that Diners Club is better positioned for the changes overtaking marketing than any other brand in the world.

Any other brand in the world.

The revolutionary brainchild of Frank X. McNamara, who invented the card after a 1949 embarrassment of being caught without cash to pay a restaurant tab, has with its competitors over the decades become commodified. There is very little that cards can do anymore to distinguish themselves from the competition, unless to get into a margin-killing arms race over rewards. Once upon a time American Express conferred prestige, but as it went increasingly mass market it became just another card.

No less Diners. But at this particular moment in history, Diners alone has an immense -- one might even say “priceless” -- advantage:  It is a club. Much of the conference was devoted to the notion that in an increasingly socially mediated world, club-ness is invaluable. Or, one also might even say, membership has its privileges.

The power of belonging was hardly original to me. Diners’ ad agency, DraftFCB, had already begun rolling out a magnificent campaign called “Belong” around the world. It is, literally and figuratively, a thing of beauty. The theme is not just a call to action; it arouses something primal.

But here is what I told the franchisees -- and what, in the interest of transparency, my client is happy to hear me say in public: An ad campaign, no matter how brilliant, is at best only a starting point. Diners Club must return to its roots and be a genuine club -- not merely by conferring special privileges, but by facilitating conversation among members, by ceding certain decisions to members, by furnishing physical and virtual clubhouses for members -- and not least, by giving members a reason to feel proud. Only then will the paid ad messages truly resonate.

How convenient that the rise of social media has made those very goals eminently -– and imminently -- achievable. In short, Diners Club is the global brand most suited for the Relationship Era. “Belong” can and must be a watchword.

In the meantime, it’s just a lovely slogan.

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