MasterCard's Focus on Data? Priceless

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- When it comes to plastic money I always thought Visa ( V) was Coca-Cola ( KO) and MasterCard ( MA) was Pepsico ( PEP).

That is, Visa stuck to its knitting and dominated the niche, while MasterCard went into a bunch of other businesses and trailed like a puppy after a bigger dog.

Maybe my prejudice came down to regionalism. Coca-Cola is based in Atlanta, where I now live, and MasterCard, like Pepsico, is based in Purchase, N.Y., outside New York City.

It's also possible that in this case I was wrong.

While the two stocks have marked each other closely since Visa did its IPO in 2008, it was MasterCard that came up with the idea of going public first, in 2006. If you got into that deal at $39/share, the IPO price, you are a very happy camper -- the shares are up over 1,000% and now trade at $523.

I think the difference between MasterCard and Visa these days comes down to offense vs. defense. The battlefield on which they play is data. The way they see data makes the difference.

Visa focuses on the business of processing transactions. They define the industry's security procedures, which they take very seriously and enforce rigorously.

MasterCard is focused more on what transaction data means, and how it can be used to create more transactions. It quietly launched an online mall called MasterCard Marketplace in 2010 based on NextJump's reward program technology. By connecting member banks' reward programs to the marketplace, MasterCard builds shopper dossiers on customers. The more you use it to get free stuff, the more it learns about for what you're willing to pay.

Free stuff is the new way to build profit into credit cards. With cards taking a discount of 2%-5% to process a transaction for merchants, plus interest and fees from the customer, there's plenty of money to create a reward program that makes sure that money keeps flowing in. Credit cards have replaced the old Green Stamps from when I was a kid, with data making them much more valuable to merchants than before.

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