American Express

The smart-dressed man in the three-piece suit returns to his
hotel room, tosses aside his newspaper and throws a wallet
down on the dresser. “This man has worked a long hard day
and he’s got a lot of money to show for it—other people’s money,”
comes a familiar, authoritative voiceover in the background, as the
man in the hotel room smiles and tosses down a second wallet…and then another,
and another. “He’s a pickpocket,” the voice continues. “His take? $700.”

Fifteen seconds into the 30-second spot, and the viewer is already incensed by
the thief’s smug expression. But any child of 1970s television knows what comes
next: the sight of Karl Malden in a conservative suit and hat—the outfit he wore
keeping The Streets of San Francisco safe
on television—sitting behind the desk at
a busy American Express office, advising
that if you carry American Express travelers
checks instead of cash, your money
will be protected from thieves like that.
And with a reassuring smile, Malden says,
“Don’t leave home without them.”

“Make life rewarding.” “Membership
has its privileges.” “Do you know me?”
“Do more.” “My life, my card.” The campaign
slogans are as familiar as the celebrities
in the commercials who have used
the American Express card as a passage
to adventure, security and convenience.
For decades, the message American Express
has delivered on television and,
more recently, across multiple platforms, can perhaps best be summed up by
another of the company’s campaigns: “A world of service.” And its stellar track
record, familiar presence, dedication to customers and commitment to reputation
have continually set it apart among brands.

“We begin with the notion that it’s noble to serve,” says John Hayes, executive
vice president and head of global advertising and brand management and
chief marketing officer at American Express. “So from a marketing standpoint,
the organization believes it can make a meaningful difference in people’s lives,
and we’re bound to end up with creative executions that will excite people. The
things we do affect people’s lives in a positive way. When you think about it,
for a brand, that’s an enviable starting point.”

And from that point, American Express makes its goals and preferences heard
not only in ads but in the programming it underwrites and supports and the economy-
spurring initiatives it sponsors. Those commitments are trademarks that have
guided the B&C Hall of Fame honoree for decades.

“American Express is a company among the absolute top ranks in the transformation
from client to partner—I consider them a media partner, not a marketing
or advertising client,” says Lauren Zalaznick, chairman, NBCUniversal Entertainment
& Digital Networks and Integrated Media, and herself a 2012 inductee
into the B&C Hall of Fame. “They’re as thoughtful and nimble in tough times
as they are in buoyant circumstances.”

For American Express, the use of celebrities through the years—many well
known, others famously almost recognizable—has been a key component to the
appeal of its ads. Regardless of the campaign, what has never changed is a level of
trust that goes beyond typical endorsement; the viewer
never gets the impression that appearing in an American
Express ad is a “job,” which is a function of the
foundational prep work the creative team does before
any filming begins. And the A-list of names includes
the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, Robert DeNiro and Ellen
DeGeneres, not to mention, historically, the likes of Mel
Blanc, Stephen King and John Cleese.

“When we start to put together a commercial to feature a celebrity, we
focus on that person’s real-life experience with the card,” Hayes says. “We
don’t show up with a script and ask them to say certain things; we spend our
time focused on cocreating an idea with an individual.…Whether it’s a small
business or a celebrity, they talk about American Express the way they see it.
Take Ellen DeGeneres: Those are Ellen’s words about her life with American
Express and the role the card has played in her life.”

For small businesses, the role the company has played in the last several years
has been equally memorable. Since 2010, its “Small Business Saturday” program
has used an elaborate cross-platform campaign to encourage holiday shoppers to
buy from local brick-and-mortar shops on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. And
the “Shine a Light” program, created in conjunction with NBCUniversal, allows
consumers to nominate their favorite businesses, with the winners receiving grant
money and additional support. It is, in a sense, a winning recession-era stopgap
that urges the return of some cash to the community.

“The Shine a Light campaign was game-changing,” Zalaznick says. “It was
a real comarketing partnership [with NBCU] that brought all the ingenuity
and commitment of American Express to the community. They really took
this mission of service plus security and extended that to…the small-business
owner. It was something that only American Express could do.”

Not surprisingly for a company that earned its reputation for commitment
to prestige, service and security, American Express has long put some of its
funds toward sponsoring everything from programs to better teach teens the financial facts of life, to the annual Tribeca Film Festival; and has contributed
to hundreds of non-profit organizations through its foundation.

In each case American Express relies on a strategic mix of platforms and
social media to get the message out there. “The [content] channels are evolving,
as are the things we can do,” Hayes says. “And when we do it right, we
see a harmony across channels that creates more business and impact.” Adds
Zalaznick with admiration: “For one of the oldest companies to be endlessly
innovating as market leaders across new platforms? That’s truly unusual.”

But with age, Hayes maintains, comes experience, and the proven belief
that if you stick to what brought you your success, you can’t fail. When
Hayes gives talks, he frequently asks the audience how many folks can recall
their American Express membership date, which is stamped on each card.

“And most times, I get an enthusiastic show of hands,” he says. “I find that
fascinating as a test of engagement. They know the date, and that marks the
tenure of the relationship they’re engaged with.”

It’s a testament to the power and influence of the brand and speaks to a
commitment to customer service that’s been American Express’ overarching
foundational message—one nobody leaves the home office without.

“Freight forwarding: That’s the business we started in, in 1850,” Hayes
says. “The description has changed, but what defines the brand is not the
card; it’s how we serve customers. It’s service, trust, security—those are the
things that served us well in the freight-forwarding business in 1850, and it
serves us well today.”