Campaign summary

In Singapore, DBS Bank is better known for being the former state-run business bank than for electrifying consumers with innovative, paradigm-shifting products and promotions. But with the launch of their Black Card, DBS not only captured massive share of wallet – one of Singapore’s most effective credit card launches ever – but also, by breaking the ‘precious metals’ paradigm, effectively re-wrote the card-launch rule book.

Marketing challenge & objectives

Singapore is one of the most competitive credit-card markets in the world.

For the card-issuing banks, it’s about winning or maintaining share in a market that’s small to begin with and that’s not growing rapidly enough to provide a fresh new supply of prospects every year. For the customer, it’s about flashing the ‘right’ card at the right time – the one that gets you the best rebate at the merchant you’re patronising, or the one that shows your tablemates you’ve arrived. No surprise then that the average Singaporean has 5 credit cards in his or her wallet.

Late in 2003, DBS was on the verge of launching a new Gold American Express card, an offer that in a lot of other markets would have been a must-have for the customer and a no-brainer for the marketing staff. But in Singapore, Gold Cards have lost much of their former lustre, thanks in part to the glut of Gold-Card offers in the marketplace and in part to super-premium, Platinum-and-beyond card offers carrying ‘aspirational’ names like Infinite and Ultima and touting unheard-of privileges.

Moreover, DBS – the former state-run Development Bank of Singapore – lacked the cachet of ‘global leader’ banks like HSBC and Citibank. A final hurdle: DBS’s Gold Card had been designed as essentially a parity offer, a last-mover defensive play rather than a dramatic new set of customer benefits. Not the ideal circumstances under which to try muscling our way into Singapore’s already-crowded wallets.

Against this backdrop, DBS’s goals looked ambitious to say the least:

(1) To achieve 50,000 cards in force by end of Year 1 (DBS benchmark for card launches); and

(2) To generate significant additional revenue for DBS’s Credit Cards group.

How in the world would we make DBS’s Gold Card shine?

Target market

Financially speaking, the target for DBS’s new card was adults who earn at least S$48,000 a year. But that barely begins to describe the people we needed to reach.

Because in Singapore, arguably the strongest motivator of behaviour is kiasu. Loosely translated, kiasu originally meant ‘afraid to lose’ – but has now come to mean something more like ‘afraid to be seen as not keeping pace with a fast-moving society’. While this characteristic is not unique to Singapore, it’s especially powerful in a society that (until SARS, anyway) had hardly known anything but economic progress, and where the ‘5 Cs’ (cash, credit card, car, condominium, country club membership) are accepted as fundamental life metrics, essentials without which no self-respecting Singaporean can, well, respect himself.

In this context, it’s not hard to see that our audience wouldn’t be satisfied with just any credit card. Indeed, the intense competition among banks had sparked a credit card ‘arms race’, with every new benefit matched or even outdone by the other cards in no time. The target’s kiasu impulse means that yesterday’s cool card quickly becomes today’s has-been.

Bottom line: Gold was no longer the colour of admiration, stature or success. And our target – the people who qualify for Gold – no longer aspired to own it.


It’s not that our target doesn’t aspire to status, wealth and recognition. There’s still that inherent need to flash the right card as a badge of their social standing. But with Gold becoming vanilla, a hole was left in the marketplace – a space we thought could only be filled by something new, something beyond Gold. Something…Black?

Our job shifted: from launching a card that would have been old news on its first day of life, to launching a new (and refreshingly non-metallic) idea in credit cards, injecting value into what we now call the Black Card, creating a prized possession, an object of desire.

Because, the way we saw it, Black could become the favourite hue of the moneyed, the palette of the fabulous, the tint synonymous with privilege.

More than just the new Gold, Black could become the colour of preference.

To launch this strangely compelling idea, we needed as much TV as we could afford, supported with newspaper and magazine ads in impact sizes. (In Singapore, it’s pretty much impossible to launch anything without a presence in The Straits Times, the paper of record.)

To push activation and usage of the card, we continued using newspaper but added outdoor and radio – we wanted to paint the town Black. (We even developed TV and press ads themed – darkly, of course – to the holidays.)

Campaign results & measurement

Objective 1: 50,000 Black Cards in force by the end of Year 1:

Black launched in November 2003, and by end October 2004, an astounding 100,000 cards had been issued – beating our Year 1 objective by 100% and smashing all previous DBS card-acquisition records.

The Singapore consumer tends to respond to new card offers in the first few months, if he’s going to at all – 10,000 Black applications were approved in the first week alone, and by the end of our first month, we’d gotten 30,000 cards in force – but while most card launches peter out after 5 or 6 months, Black has barely slowed down, and as of this writing, 18 months post-launch, no fewer than 125,000 DBS Black Cards have been issued.

And amazingly, in a market where the average eligible cardholder had 5 cards in his wallet already, DBS Black Card has managed to capture one out of every six wallets.

Objective 2: Generate additional revenue for DBS Credit Cards group:

DBS doesn’t disclose exact sales figures, but Black has boosted DBS’s sales in the highly profitable gold-level card segment by 77%.

Moreover, Black Card holders are spending on average twice as much with their Black Card as they do with Gold cards – they even spend 20% more than with their Platinum cards.

In fact, DBS Black Card has become the top sales generator in DBS’s entire portfolio of more than a dozen credit cards.

Lastly, some bonus points for Black:

To date, the Black campaign has won 7 Creative Circle Awards and an EFFIE.

And the DBS Black Card was voted by American Express as its best new product globally for 2004, and DBS was voted its best bank partner – also globally.

(Source: DBS Bank, industry averages supplied by DBS)

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