Case study: American Express

By refreshing its products, rewards scheme and marketing strategy in 2009, American Express gave the 160-year-old financial services brand a new lease of life.

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Spending more on marketing has contributed to a 33% rise in profits to $1.18bn (£715.7m). However, first quarter results in April revealed a 21% increase in expenses thanks to a greater spend on marketing and rewards programmes.

This has been reflected in its performance in this year’s BrandZ ranking, rising 12 places to 40th and increasing its brand value by 23% to $17.1bn (£10.37bn).

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Card sharp: American Express has adopted a modern and flexible image

Its 2009 Realise the Potential campaign was its biggest in four years, focusing on the privileges that being a cardholder brings and attempting to come across as more modern and flexible – a move away from old perceptions of it being stuffy and corporate.

The brand ran a campaign last year featuring DJ Mark Ronson, highlighting the special events the brand can give customers access to. It also teamed up with Spotify, The Guardian and LoveFilm to raise awareness of its involvement in film, music and food. This activity featured live music events, celebrity video diaries and cooking demonstrations.

Last year, AmEx hired Laura Kelly, former executive vice-president of global prepaid debit cards at MasterCard, to head up product development and growth opportunities and help the brand reach a wider variety of demographics.

In the BrandZ ranking, AmEx demonstrates a higher value increase than both Visa and MasterCard. Alison Bain, head of international advertising at American Express, says this shows “clear water between us and our competitors”. She claims the Realise the Potential campaign has increased positive consumer buzz, and delivering the message that being an AmEx customer is not just a transactional mechanism, but a lifestyle choice.

“Our business strategy has been carefully planned coming out of the recession. We’re all about driving growth and efficiency and delivering superior service,” she says.

Increasing AmEx’s profile in emerging markets is one of the next steps on Bain’s agenda.

Bain explains that consumer sentiments stemming from the recession around trust and value guided the brand’s new direction. Highlighting the multiple uses and appeal of an AmEx card has been key, she says.

“We aren’t just for business people but we have strong credentials in business and travel because people in the corporate world and people who travel a lot need to rely on brands they can trust. Getting it right for those people is the kind of credential that will help any consumers.”

Another priority has been increasing the amount of merchants that accept AmEx and supporting their in-store marketing to dispel the misconception that distribution is poor.

“Some places don’t take our cards but when we analysed this we found there was a gap in the perception of our coverage and its actual reach,” Bain explains.

“We are running a point-of-sale campaign that has been designed to remind our members they can use their cards in everyday situations like supermarkets or petrol stations, not just for exceptional purchases. In doing this, the rewards will add up.”

Increasing AmEx’s profile in emerging markets is one of the next steps on Bain’s agenda. She says understanding how its core audience of affluent customers behaves in these markets will be fundamental.

“Affluence is well understood in Western markets but in territories such as Brazil, Russia, India and China affluence is perhaps more about status. We will be making sure the value proposition is staged in a relevant way,” she explains.

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