Enough with the super-niche cobranded credit cards already

22 March 2023

I remember when cobranded credit cards made more sense. Ah, the good old days.

Cobranded credit cards (ones that earn rewards with a specific airline or hotel brand) launched with broad appeal because most customers could find enough value to justify the annual fee — even if they weren’t die-hard fans of that brand. Free checked bags and free breakfast are slam-dunk benefits on cards.

Then, the pandemic hit. Things changed. People stopped traveling, and credit card issuers scrambled to convince customers to keep their cards — and continue to pay annual fees — while stuck inside.

How did they do this? Through new partnerships that supposedly added value and could be used at home. Now, these partnerships have expanded and birthed a wide range of new cobranded cards. But are there too many cobranded credit cards now? Let’s take a look at what’s happening.

New credit card partnerships during the pandemic

“I’m not traveling, so why should I pay a fee for a travel credit card?”

Banks feared this mentality when borders closed and people curbed their travels for a few years. The logic made sense, though. Was it worth paying for a credit card offering a lounge membership and free checked bags when you weren’t flying anywhere?

JOSEF LINDAU/GETTY IMAGES

Many banks added benefits with previously unseen partners to entice customers to keep their credit cards open. Here are some examples:

Streaming credits and bonus rewards on streaming purchases: Numerous credit cards started to offer streaming-related benefits, thanks to the explosion in popularity of these services while people stayed at home. The catch is that most of these credits aren’t sufficient to cover the cost of the streaming services. For example, the U.S. Bank Altitude® Go Visa Signature® Card offers just $15 in credits for streaming annually, but you need to pay for a streaming charge with your card each month for 11 months in a row before you earn this $15 (see rates and fees).
Allowing you to use travel credits for other purchases: Credit cards with annual travel credits allowed people to use these elsewhere in 2020 and 2021, such as at supermarkets and dining establishments, but that flexibility has ended.
Temporary monthly credits: American Express was the most robust here, offering temporary monthly credits for streaming, wireless and dining purchases across multiple cards.
New partnerships not related to the credit card: With a travel credit card, you expect your benefits to be related to travel. However, this changed in recent years. Here are some glaring examples: The Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant® American Express® Card lost its easy-to-use annual credit at Marriott (the brand stamped on the front of the card), instead offering dining credits that are tougher to use. The Platinum Card® from American Express added credits with Equinox and SoulCycle that don’t come close to covering the costs of the eligible purchases. The Chase Sapphire Reserve now offers a DoorDash DashPass subscription, Gopuff delivery credits and bonus earning rates with Peloton. Unfortunately, these new perks also came with increased annual fees on these cards.

Our 2022 prediction of further expansions of these partnerships was correct. As they expanded, they evolved these partnerships into new cobranded credit cards.

Cobranded cards have become very niche

Many of these newfound bank-brand partnerships turned into cobranded credit cards. However, these card launches tend to be very niche, unlikely to attract anyone not already loyal to the brand stamped on the front of the card.

For example, over the past year, Chase has launched the Instacart Mastercard and DoorDash Rewards Mastercard. While both are likely to be popular with fans of those brands, they don’t offer much to convince outsiders. The Instacart Mastercard offers just one year of Instacart+ (providing reduced fees on certain orders) before requiring cardholders to pay $99 a year for this service. The DoorDash Mastercard offers even less to convince outsiders: mainly discounts on orders, which aren’t permanent.

Other cards are even more niche.

WITTHAYA PRASONGSIN/MOMENT/GETTY IMAGES

Consider the fan-based credit cards from Cardless, offering cards related to NBA and English Premier League sports teams. Most cardholder benefits are related to a fan kit received on account opening, discounts on tickets and memorabilia, plus bonus earnings at the team’s official store. If you’re a die-hard fan of these teams, you may be excited to receive these discounts; for anyone else, these cards are unlikely to merit attention.

Cardless offers another unique cobranded card: the Simon® American Express® Credit Card. This card earns 3% back at Simon Malls properties (including outlets) in the U.S. and 5% at select retailers within these malls. Many people shop online now, so launching a credit card tied to shopping malls and offering just 1% cash back outside the malls is unlikely to attract the average consumer.

2022 also saw the launch of the Mana Visa® Debit Card. Aimed at gamers, this card allows you to earn rewards on real-world purchases, but you can’t redeem your earnings for cash back. Rather, rewards are valid only for video game purchases and gift cards.

The information for the Simon Amex and Mana Visa cards has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

To be clear, offering noncompelling cobranded credit cards is not entirely new. Consider these gas station and cruise line credit cards that we don’t think are worth holding. However, the launch frequency and narrow focus of cobranded credit cards have increased in the past two years.

Bottom line

I’m not against new credit cards coming into the market. However, I fail to see what many offer to attract someone not already spending money with that brand regularly. For example, if I’m not already placing frequent orders with DoorDash, does that card offer enough to entice me to apply for it? Unlikely.

We see increasing numbers of cobranded credit cards, and each offering seems less impressive than previous launches. Are there too many cobranded credit cards? I think so. Unfortunately, we’ll likely see even more of these over the next year, with credit card issuers looking for additional revenue streams.

For rates and fees of the U.S. Bank Altitude Go Visa please click here.

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