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From the pre-Mad Men era to the epoch of the iPhone, American Express is one of the few brands that has managed to stay personal. Tara Looney, director, brand and communications at American Express UK, tells Guy Phillipson, chief executive of the IAB (Internet Advertising Bureau), how the brand has used digital to advance its global scale, while enhancing personal relevance.
Guy Phillipson: Can you give us some idea of the scale of American Express (AmEx)?
Tara Looney: AmEx started as a courier and mail operator in the US in 1850. Now we operate in more than 200 countries, have 58,000 employees, 89m card members and revenues of $20bn.
AmEx’s relationship with Ogilvy is one of the longest in marketing history. Is Ogilvy’s own global scale a key element to this?
One of the greatest achievements of 2009’s ‘Realise the potential’ campaign was the establishment of brand consistency across 22 countries. And doing that would be very hard if we didn’t have an agency with geographic scale. Ogilvy’s ability to partner with us on such a broad scale made that happen.
Was it nerve-wracking mounting the rebrand amid the credit crunch?
We did a lot of research. We are a lifestyle brand and, because a lot of what we communicate is about that aspect, these were messages people wanted to hear. Our target audience was still optimistic about life. The campaign works on a human truth level – within all of us there’s a need to realise the potential of our own lives. Then it works on a product level in that your AmEx card holds a lot within it – the service, the access and the rewards. We weren’t saying: ‘Go out there and spend lots of money, there’s no recession happening.’ It was about reinforcing the notion that everyone wants to realise their potential. I don’t recall any letters of complaint, which is extraordinary given the upbeat nature of the campaign.
How does your card product strategy work?
It’s about identifying the needs in different segments. In the travel space, for instance, we have our British Airways co-brand cards for those who want to collect air miles with that airline. We have membership rewards-related cards, which give people the opportunity to redeem for different airlines and travel-related programmes. Then there are more retail-oriented cards, such as our Harrods card.
How much do you spend on marketing?
In 2010, in the UK, we spent around £20m on through-the-line marketing: TV, print, radio, digital and direct.
What proportion of that budget goes on digital?
Depending on the campaign, between 30% and 50%. Display media, content and online partnerships play a very big part. For acquisition, it’s a combination of search, affiliate and display media. Up to 80% of our acquisition closes digitally – a phenomenal change from when it mostly came through direct marketing.
What has been AmEx’s biggest digital initiative?
Launching ‘Realise the potential’ was huge, and digital is at the heart of everything we do. A big activity was a mash-up, working with a number of external partners such as Spotify, LoveFilm, The Guardian and our own agencies to create a way of bringing content to where people are browsing. During the British Film Institute London Film Festival, which we sponsored, we had some great editorial features which LoveFilm and the BFI helped us with. We were able to amalgamate this with some of the offers, such as giving AmEx card members access to the festival premieres.
For branding purposes, which digital formats work for AmEx?
We work with online publishers such as Yahoo! and figure out how to use their assets, such as page takeovers, which means we can really follow the customer through their journey on the site and engage with them. Rich media is something we focused on last year. One of the joys of display advertising is that you can add units that are really interesting, that mirror what you’re saying offline but in a way that’s more engaging and with a quirky sense of humour.
How local did the ‘Realise the potential’ campaign get?
It’s the old adage of globally created but locally delivered – a marketing philosophy from 30 years ago that still resonates for a brand like AmEx. ‘Realise the potential’ was created centrally as an international platform, and local markets adapted it to suit their needs.
Financial services is often said to be a ‘low-interest’ category for consumers. How do you get them to be passionate about AmEx?
We’re in quite a different space to other financial companies, in that we see ourselves as a lifestyle brand. One of the things we’ve consistently done is engage with our customers on their passions. We know our card members and prospects love film, music and dining, so we’ve created a programme that enables them to have these experiences. We do it in a better way than our competitors and people recognise that.
What part does digital play in getting people passionate about AmEx?
It goes back to where your customers are and what they are doing. They’re still reading newspapers, listening to radio and watching TV, but they’re also online. The great convergence of media channels continues. People are interacting with digital in so many different ways, the challenge is to keep up and to make sure we are at the forefront of the innovations in digital.
Is there anything digital that’s blown you away recently?
In November, Justin Bieber announced a series of concerts, and AmEx had a Preferred Seating window of two days. Normally these things are unveiled in print ads or the media. Justin tweeted that he was going on tour and we also tweeted. In a matter of minutes, thousands went to our site to find out where they could buy tickets.
When your brand is as big as AmEx, how do you engage people one-to-one?
Using card member insight, and together with our partners and merchants, we find offers relevant to a broad set of customers.
So how does AmEx segmentation work?
Quite broadly! When we were launching the campaign last year we wanted to be clear who we were targeting. The insight around ‘Realise the potential’ was that, even
though it was launched in a deep recession, there is a group of people who are optimistic, have careers rather than jobs and who get out there and live life. It’s not necessarily related to what they do with a credit card – it’s a like-minded group
How far does AmEx intend going down the ecommerce route?
The whole area of mobile is one that we’re thinking a lot about. We now have a part of the organisation dedicated to thinking about ecommerce. It’s going to be an interesting year for us, with ecommerce definitely a focus.
What’s been AmEx’s biggest creative challenge in recent years?
Getting cut-through, when people have such a plethora of messages coming at them through every channel imaginable. Then there’s financial services regulation, which is good because the law is there to protect consumers and to ensure they get consistent language, for example in how credit cards are talked about.
Will plastic disappear?
I don’t think it will ever disappear. People will have multiple methods of payment and, fortunately for consumers, there will be choice in methods of payment. It’s still going to be through a card, but also through your mobile phone or other technology.
What’s the biggest challenge facing brands over the next year?
Differentiation through service or customer experience. A couple of comments on Facebook or Twitter can mean brands have nowhere to hide. For us, service and experience have always been part of what we do, so we’re well positioned.
Who is your marketing hero?
There’s a quote I love, not from someone you traditionally associate with advertising. George Bernard Shaw said the biggest problem in communi-cation is the illusion it has taken place, and that lies at the heart of what we do. The old days of throwing out a campaign and expecting people to hear it are gone. That quote brings me back to earth – are we the only ones who think the communication has happened? And this is where insight is vital, as it can be an illusion. You just need to make sure it’s not.
Director of brand and communications, American Express UK
Looney is responsible for brand and communications for American Express UK across all consumer groups and product portfolios, from brand management and advertising to the set up and management of the entertainment access programme Preferred Seating. Prior to joining AmEx, Tara was head of marketing for Commsec, Australia’s biggest online share trader.
Chief executive, Internet Advertising Bureau, UK
Phillipson was appointed CEO of the IAB in 2005. During his tenure, UK online ad revenues have increased from £825m to £3.5bn – representing a world record 24% of total media expenditure. Phillipson is also chairman of IAB Europe, and in 2006 he was named Digital Business Person of the Year by Revolution. Phillipson is a former head of advertising at Vodafone.