Why it pays to be pretty as a picture

Only in America: open a bank account in the United States and often you will be given a huge choice of background designs for your cheques. Chicago First National Bank, for example, offers 60 different designs including the Chicago skyline, mountain scenes, the beach, cartoon characters, and a range of American football, basketball and ice hockey teams.

The bank offers this service as standard because while it seems unusual here it is normal practice for American banks. And it is not only the banks which can issue unorthodox cheques. A thriving business has grown up in the US for companies that print and design cheques. As long as they satisfy official criteria, almost any picture can be put onto one in America.

NatWest has been quietly producing picture cheque books for more than 20 years in Britain - its current design features five different wildlife scenes - but none of the other high street banks has followed suit.

The main reason given is that banks believe that cheques, while once a primary source of payment, are now taking a back seat to things like credit and debit cards. Mick Hodsdon, senior accounts marketing manager with NatWest, says: "Cheque usage is in decline, and it's unlikely that we'll go further down that line of producing picture cheques, but we will be keeping the wildlife ones. Our customers seem to like them."

Around 10 per cent of the cheque books NatWest produces each year are picture-based. By contrast, "designer" credit cards, appear here to stay. Open up any wallet or purse nowadays and inside lurks a plethora of colourful plastic decorated with pictures designed to entice customers to use them - from fluffy animals to Star Trek characters, though some argue that the increasing number of designer cards only goes to show the lack of difference between deals.

Tim Sawyer, head of banking strategy at Abbey National, is aware of the appeal such cards can have. When Abbey National took over the National & Provincial last year and did away with a popular penguin credit card design, many customers complained. Though not enough were upset by the cull for the Abbey to keep the card. "I think to a certain extent these cards are a gimmick," says Mr Sawyer. "Financial institutions compete in three areas: loyalty schemes, price, and gimmicks. If you cannot compete in terms of price or loyalty then you have to come up with some sort of gimmick, and that's what these are."

Jonathan Knowles, the head of financial services sector with Wolff Olin, the design consultants, agrees: "These types of cards are about consumer choice. If you don't have anything strong to say that distinguishes you from the competition then you offer choice."

Research has highlighted the importance of the "front of wallet" spot, which is used the most. This can only encourage issuers to come up with ever more attractive designs.

It also pinpoints one suggestion why designer cheques have not been pushed in Britain - if the designs are too attractive people will collect them rather than use them.

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