Will Amex smash the card mould?

The Amex card, once undisputed talisman of thrusting jet-set executives, is undergoing a severe identity crisis. No one would accuse Amex of being unprofitable or of being anything other than a great brand. But is it losing its magic?

Amex, like Diners Club, pioneered the charge card. At the time in the early Sixties it represented effortless convenience – the freedom to dispense with tiresome chequebooks and foreign currency transactions. Naturally it became a status symbol, because it represented unlimited short-term credit; you could be sure that Amex would have triple-checked cardholders’ creditworthiness before taking such a financial risk.

How different from the plebeian credit-card wielding world of today, where everything seems to be decided by price-point rather than perceived value. Visa- and MasterCard-backed credit cards can claim near universal acceptance; cost nothing, or almost nothing, to maintain; and offer revolving credit at mouthwateringly low (introductory) rates of interest. Of course, that credit isn’t limitless, but it’s certainly generous.

So what future for Amex’s iconic charge card, or indeed any charge card? Some, like Steve Worthington, professor of marketing at Staffordshire University, would argue not a very bright one. The repositioning task for Amex is enormous: it must subtly shift its emphasis from charge card to credit card, and from mature corporate market to a younger generation of card holders without undermining its prestige.

To be fair, it has made a good start with the launch of the blue Amex credit card, which appeared in May 1998 and has now attracted 470,000 customers. While this figure scarcely puts it in the same class as MBNA (2 million cardholders) or Capital One, Amex may reasonably argue that’s not a class it wants to compete in anyway.

The imminent relaunch of its cornerstone green charge card – the first facelift in 37 years – will be an altogether trickier issue. Although Amex denies it is going downmarket, the &£8m UK relaunch campaign eschews the celebrity endorsements which have underpinned it for so long in favour of ‘ordinary’ people who demonstrate the versatility of the card’s uses. The card, says an Amex spokeswoman, ‘is what people want, rather than a status symbol’. Well yes, therein lies the problem. In effect ‘new green’, as it is called, is being reduced to a stepping stone between blue card entry-level customers and the top-of-the-range Centurion charge card, itself launched only in June 1999. This may make a lot of sense as far as brand portfolio management is concerned, but it is far from clear whether Amex has got it right in terms of public perception. An icon is, after all, an icon.

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