The yuppies who came to epitomize upward mobility in the 1980s defined success with possessions, from Rolex watches to BMW convertibles and Sony CD players. (Yes, CD players were once cutting-edge status symbols.)
Today's affluent customers, heavily influenced by millennials, however, measure success by a different standard: experiences. For them, the standard typically includes a heavy component of global travel, from basking in the Cote d'Azur sun to photographing the Incan ruins at Machu Picchu or base-jumping in a subterranean Mexican cave.
That's the market JPMorgan Chase (JPM) - Get JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM) Report is targeting with the Sapphire Reserve card introduced this week, the brand's first entry into the ultra-luxury credit card market, where it will compete with American Express's platinum card and Citi's 4th Night Free program. For a $450 annual fee, Sapphire Reserve offers one point per dollar in spending, with triple points from travel-related purchases, from Uber rides to Airbnb lodgings or a taxi ride downtown.
Such innovative rewards have become a crucial tool for banks seeking to winning new credit-card users in the U.S. market, where rapid growth is heightening competition as seven years of slow economic recovery reach more deeply into the consumer base. An unemployment rate at less than half its 2009 peak of 10%, with growth even in middle-class jobs, and gas prices still down more than 50% over the past two years are prompting shoppers to spend more and, importantly, to borrow more.
"The labor market continues to be solid and improving, and sentiment is still good, housing still improving," JPMorgan CFO Marianne Lake said on the bank's July earnings call. "Consumers are in very good shape, and demand is there for the product."
Total household debt rose 3.7% to $12.3 trillion in the year through June 30, according to data from the New York Federal Reserve Bank, driven by auto loans and credit cards. Indeed, credit card debt rose by roughly the same percentage to $729 billion.
"We're definitely in a growth mode when it comes to our branded cards book," Citigroup (C) - Get Citigroup Inc. Report CFO John Gerspach said on the New York bank's most recent quarterly earnings call.
Average North American loan balances on Citigroup's branded credit cards rose 6% to $67 billion in the three months through June, reflecting in part the acquisition of the Costco portfolio from American Express (AXP) - Get American Express Company Report.
Bank of America (BAC) - Get Bank of America Corp Report , meanwhile, issued 1.3 million new consumer credit cards in the second quarter, the Charlotte, N.C.-bank's highest level in the U.S. since 2008. Average credit-card balances at Chase climbed 3% to $128.4 billion in the same period.
For such lenders, reaching millennial customers, born between 1980 and 2000, is vital because their population of 92 million makes them the largest generation in U.S. history. Historical norms indicate their spending power will only increase as they grow older.
Chase's Sapphire Reserve Card offers features tailor-made for that market, though it appeals across demographic sectors. The allure is evidenced by tens of thousands of approved applications within the first few days, making it the largest launch of a fee-based product in the bank's recent history.
"For affluent younger customers who don't define success by the things that they have but by the rich experiences that they accumulate, the great thing is that this card can serve as the key that unlocks those unique experiences," Pam Codispoti, the president of Chase Branded Cards, said in a telephone interview. "That's really who we designed for."
Such customers typically have higher incomes and spend more on travel than other card users, she explained.
"What really differentiates them goes beyond the numbers," Codispoti said. "It's more of a design target based on someone's mindset."
Card users will receive periodic offers that typical consumers don't have access to, the bank noted, such as backstage passes to the Emmy awards or access to the 18th hole of PGA tournaments. Users who spend $4,000 in the first three months also receive a 100,000-point bonus.
"The card does carry a $450 annual fee, but then again so do the Amex Platinum card and Citi Prestige," Zach Honig, editor-in-chief for travel rewards site ThePointsGuy, wrote in a recent post. "There's no question that both AmEx and Citi have their work cut out for them if they want to avoid having premium cardholders cancel their accounts in favor of Chase Sapphire Reserve."