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Coming To A FarmVille Near You: American Express Cards

By Andrew R. Johnson Of DOW JONES NEWSWIRES NEW YORK -(Dow Jones)- American Express Co. (AXP), known for lending to well-heeled consumers, is pitching its plastic to the FarmVille crowd. The New York-based lender is rolling out a line of co-branded prepaid cards with Zynga Inc. (ZNGA), whose social games allow players to build virtual farms, cities and restaurants on Facebook Inc.'s (FB) site and other platforms. The tie-in is American Express' latest foray into social networking as it tries to broaden beyond affluent customers. It traditionally has focused on getting credit and charge cards in to the wallets of big spenders, partnering with brands including Delta Air Lines Inc. (DAL), Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. (HOT) and Daimler AG's (DDAIY, DAI.XE) Mercedes-Benz. By broadening its focus, American Express hopes to grow the amount of spending done on its cards, which reached $822 billion last year. "The digital platforms and our prepaid products ... are a perfect way for American Express to expand its franchise to become much more of an inclusive brand," said Dan Schulman, the president of the company's Enterprise Growth Group. Schulman, a former Sprint Nextel Corp. (S) executive, joined American Express in 2010 to help spearhead the lender's push into new products. Since last year, American Express has rolled out prepaid cards that don't require users to pass a credit check and launched a competitor to eBay Inc.'s (EBAY) PayPal service. It also offers a service that lets credit-card customers receive merchant offers based on their activities on Foursquare, Twitter and Facebook. Under its latest partnership, American Express will initially issue prepaid cards that carry both its name and that of FarmVille or Zynga. To get a card, FarmVille users must sign up for a Serve account, which customers can fund with existing bank accounts, debit and credit cards. Cardholders can earn "Farm Cash" rewards for various activities, including purchases made with their FarmVille cards at merchants. Those rewards can then be used to buy more "virtual goods," such as a tractor or a horse, within the FarmVille game, where players plant crops to grow their farms. Other companies will have the ability to pitch discounts within the game that players can load to their accounts and redeem by swiping their cards at the participating merchant, Schulman said. American Express expects to issue co-branded prepaid cards for other Zynga games, such as CityVille and CastleVille, and expand its Zynga Serve Rewards program in the future, Schulman said. Zynga has more than 290 million monthly active users across its various games, according to Jeff Karp, the company's chief marketing officer. The efforts are one way lenders are trying to get their brands to be "top of wallet" in consumers' minds, said Denee Carrington, a senior analyst with Forrester Research Inc. who previously worked at American Express. "I think the (return on investment) is a little bit more of an indirect ROI," Carrington said. "It's a way of integrating your brand, product or service into social media to reach your customer in a way to drive deeper engagement," which could potentially lead to "greater spend" on their card products. In addition to American Express, Discover Financial Services (DFS) sponsored an add-on world in FarmVille for a limited time in December, during which its credit-card customers could convert their cash-back rewards into double the amount of Zynga game currency. It also offered non-customers the ability to receive a $100 Zynga game card if they applied and were approved for a Discover credit card through a special Facebook link. Capital One Financial Corp. (COF) last year said its customers could place a Capital One branch in CityVille, a game in which players develop their own cities. "We ... are attracting a different segment of the population than we have attracted and we're reinforcing with our current customer base the advantages that we can provide online to them," American Express's Schulman said. -By Andrew R. Johnson, Dow Jones Newswires; 212-416-3214;

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