Reinventing the plastic payment card
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The plastic card is an aging tool in payments, but there's still room for innovation in its design and features. Here are a few new concepts that favor technology and style as differentiators.
PNC Bank signage
PNC Bank signage is displayed on a door at a branch in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Nov. 11, 2014. PNC Financial Services Group Inc., the second-biggest U.S. regional bank, posted third-quarter profit last month that beat analysts' estimates as asset-management revenue increased. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
Material design
Card issuers and their manufacturers have had a burst of activity the past two years with the call for millions of EMV chip cards to be sent to U.S. consumers as the country moved away from total reliance on mag-stripe technology. Since it meant consumers would be dumping out their old cards and stuffing their wallets with new ones, issuers were trying every tactic to make sure their product landed on top.

"Nothing has changed in the world of cards insofar as all issuers want to make sure that when a consumer takes out a card ... they take out their card as opposed to one of the competitors' cards," said Martin Ferenczi, president of North America for the EMV card manufacturer Oberthur Technologies. "It remains a key concern because the card continues to be the most frequently used interface between a financial institution and their clients."

Some PNC cards have an orange core, to reflect the bank's branding and "help to distinguish the card in our customer's wallet," said Tanya Herriott, senior vice president of credit card marketing at PNC Bank. It's also upon card manufacturers to offer up new materials, designs and gimmicks. It's why Oberthur produces nearly 50 different card constructions with various materials.

It's also why Chase is getting so much notice for its metal card, and why a Discover It or a PNC bank-branded card with an orange core, rather than the standard white or black core, might stand out among rivals that use plain white plastic.

"You open your wallet and you immediately see what you want to use," Ferenczi said.

For PNC, it was natural to take the bank's branded color of "PNC Orange" and apply it to the credit card itself. "Not only does it help to distinguish the card in our customer’s wallet but we want them to make that positive association with the brand whenever they pull out our card," said Tanya Herriott, senior vice president of credit card marketing at PNC Bank.

Still, PNC uses the orange core only in select cards. "We consider each product, audience and a variety of design elements when developing the card design—all of the elements need to work well together," Herriott said.
The Fitbit Charge wearable
A Fitbit Inc. Charge wearable electronic fitness device sits on display at an AT&T store in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, April 21, 2015. AT&T Inc., the second-largest U.S. wireless carrier, is expected to release earnings figures data on April 22. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
Divide and conquer
Coin was one of a slew of multi-account cards from the likes of Stratos, Swyp and Plastc that were forced to adapt to the rapidly changing payments ecosystem — particularly the shift to EMV security — before their products could take off.

But there is still a place in the market for their technology.

Coin made a fresh attempt at a broad mobile payments play in early 2016, forging a partnership with Mastercard, which vowed to use Coin’s NFC-based mobile payments technology to power an array of wearables as part of Mastercard’s Commerce for Every Device initiative, angling to leverage the emerging Internet of Things.

Coin then sold off its tech to Fitbit, a company that needs to differentiate with devices that have capabilities beyond counting steps and tracking sleep. In addition to buying Coin's assets, the company acquired not one, but two smartwatch companies in 2016 - Pebble and Vector.
mastercard black
Muenster, Germany - April 9, 2011: A close up macro shot of a Mastercard credit card. Mastercard is one of the biggest credit card companies in the world.
Built-in biometrics
The widespread use of fingerprint authentication in mobile devices has made many consumers comfortable with the technology. So is Mastercard's test of a biometric payment card a case of plastic catching up to a modern tech trend, or is it instead dragging biometrics back in time?

The challenge is bringing the technology to the point of sale. Most efforts rely on special hardware, such as the fingerprint readers used by the defunct Pay By Touch or, more recently, the Near Field Communication readers required by Apple Pay, which uses the iPhone's Touch ID system as part of the payment process.

Mastercard's recent effort shifts the hardware burden to the card itself, with the fingerprint sensor built into the plastic. It's somewhat reminiscent of the recent wave of multi-account cards such as the recently shuttered Plastc, which allowed users to lock and unlock the card with a security code.

It’s a catchy idea that may appeal to certain issuers seeking cachet with consumers, but for a variety of reasons Mastercard’s biometric card is unlikely to be an industry “game-changer," said Brian Riley, director of the credit advisory service at Mercator Advisory Group.

“New multi-factor card security protocols rely on the full features of a mobile device, combined with tokenization, with emerging models including 3-D Secure 2.0, due out later this year,” Riley said.
Visa cards
Visa Inc. credit and debit cards are arranged for a photograph in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014. Visa Inc. is expected to release earnings data on Jan. 30. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
Blurring the line between plastic and payments
As consumers transition to digital payments, there is no need to abruptly leave their plastic cards behind. Thus, card networks are working on ways to make the use of plastic and non-plastic payments equally convenient.

To this end, Visa has announced plans to enhance its Visa Token Service with new services to control how tokenized card information is stored on file for third-party use cases like the Internet of Things, with the tools launching next year in the U.S. and Australia.

Two new services in development include the Visa Network Hub Provisioning feature and the Visa Card-on-File API, Visa said.

Issuers using the provisioning feature will have one integration point to connect to VTS token requestors, enabling consumers to handle merchants' requests for a digital version of their Visa card through the issuer's mobile banking app or online banking channel, without having to provide card details to each IoT provider, Visa said in the release.

By combining the provisioning feature with consumer transaction controls, issuers may also enable consumers to directly authorize payments to third parties without providing the physical card or full account details. Examples listed include giving restricted card access to another user, authorizing a payment to a merchant with card details already on file, an e-commerce enabler or an IoT provider.
American Express cards stack
An American Express credit card is displayed for a photograph in New York, U.S., on Tuesday, May 18, 2010. Credit-card firms caught off-guard by U.S. Senate passage of curbs on debit fees are facing what one executive sees as a "volcanic" eruption of legislation, including possible limits on interest rates. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg
Thinking outside the account
American Express introduced the Bluebird prepaid card through a partnership with Walmart in 2012. For the most part, American Express has fared well with the Bluebird program, considering it entered a crowded prepaid card field — both within the industry and within Walmart itself, with various other prepaid products sold at the stores, said Ben Jackson, a senior analyst at Mercator Advisory Group.

However, it may not have delivered what Amex was hoping for early in the launch, Jackson said.

"Based on the fact they haven't talked about it much, prepaid has not led to new credit customers like they had hoped," he added. "When they launched, they said if they liked the prepaid customers and their spending patterns, they would offer credit cards."

Thus, Amex has chosen to tinker with the Bluebird model, adding features such as one not found on any standard credit or debit card: access to the Walmart2Walmart domestic money transfer network.

If Amex can expand the market for Bluebird, it may bring it closer to its traditional audience. The recent addition of a Bluebird2Walmart money transfer option represents another step for Bluebird, said Stefan Happ, executive vice president and general manager of global prepaid and alternative payments at American Express.

The service ties into Ria's Walmart2Walmart money transfer network, which allows customers to send funds to be picked up at another Walmart location within the U.S. "Our work with Walmart and Ria links Bluebird and Serve to the broader Walmart2Walmart universe," Happ said.

Bluebird also launched Cash Pickup powered through Ria earlier this year, allowing cardholders easier access to cash beyond traditional ATM limits and enabling a "high-dollar, funds-off route for tax refund deposits," Happ added.