Discover Card now claims a 15-year streak at the top of the Brand Keys Customer Loyalty Engagement Index. Since 1997, researchers from consulting firm Brand Keys, Inc. have analyzed the relationships between a sample of American consumers and 528 of the country's best-known brands. Every year, Brand Keys announces top performing companies in 79 categories.

Best credit cards

Unlike simple preference surveys, the Brand Keys Customer Loyalty Engagement Index measures how well customers expect a company to live up to expectations over the next 12 to 18 months. Researchers from Brand Keys use complex algorithms to measure and assess the "emotional" and "rational" values inherent in purchasing and loyalty decisions.

The top ranked credit card issuers in the 2011 survey were:

  1. Discover Card
  2. American Express
  3. Capital One (tie)
  4. Visa (tie)
  5. MasterCard

Consumers expect brands that "delight"

According to Brand Keys founder and president Robert Passikoff, consumers have shifted their expectations of brands away from price and toward the overall experience of interacting with a company and its people. "Consumers are looking for their favorite brands to make a real difference--to delight them--in their lives," Passikoff said in a statement to reporters. In 93 percent of this year's categories, consumers reported the biggest changes in expectations around customer experience.

American Express and Discover Card represent the only two of the top five brands in the credit card category that both issue their own credit card accounts and operate their own payment platforms. Of banks who issue either Visa or MasterCard branded accounts, only Capital One stood out enough among survey respondents to land in the top five.

In the overall banking category, Wells Fargo earned the top spot, followed by JPMorgan Chase and Bank of New York. Discover Card first appeared at the top of Brand Keys' annual credit card loyalty index in its 1997 edition.