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Champions of Design: American Express

The pioneering US payments company has an exemplary track record of design and branding innovation.

The American Express blue trademark and gladiator logo are recognised worldwide as symbols of financial security and payment flexibility. With 97 million cards in use, American Express cardholders spent $822bn (£522bn) in more than 200 territories in 2011.

The brand offers an array of payment, expense-management and travel products for consumers and businesses, including credit and charge cards, travel, home and car insurance, its Travellers Cheques and foreign exchange services.

American Express was formed in 1850 from the merger of express mail companies Wells & Co, Butterfield, Wasson & Co and Livingston, Fargo & Co. The freight company provided safe and speedy transportation of bullion and bank notes across the US.

A move into secure financial transactions was prompted by a visit to Europe by its then-president, JC Fargo, in the late 1880s. As was common at the time, Fargo took letters of credit to facilitate cash advances. However, he was frustrated to find that he could do so only in major cities. As a consequence, the company launched its Travellers Cheques. It remains the biggest issuer of them by volume.

Although the company had considered launching a charge card in 1946, it did not do so until 1958, by which time rival Diners Club's operation had been running for eight years.

However, interest was so great that AmEx issued 250,000 of its paper cards prior to launch, despite levying a $6 annual charge – $1 more than Diners Club, to give it a premium positioning. Another year passed before users could put their purchases "on plastic", with the introduction of embossed plastic cards.

The classic green card was just the start, as AmEx began to segment its customer base with different cards for the more-wealthy. In 1966, it launched the Gold Card – the invitation-only Platinum Card followed in 1984. Each had its own fee structure and associated benefits.

Until 1987, the company offered only charge cards, where the balance had to be cleared in full each month. However, in 1987 it moved into the credit card market with its Optima product.

As the card market expanded, AmEx sought to differentiate its offerings by promoting the various benefits of membership, as exemplified in its 'Membership has its privileges' tagline. The ultra-exclusive Centurion, or Black Card, has taken this to its highest level, offering perks such as personal shoppers at luxury stores, first-class upgrades on flights, and a concierge service.

Since the financial crisis, AmEx has focused on its traditional, charge card market, rather than the more fickle credit card arena. In other areas it is less conservative, with its Serve platform facilitating online and mobile payments, an area of growing importance. Meanwhile, a tie-up with Foursquare is intended to help build the importance of the physical card in the virtual world.


BRAND LESSON 

James, Joice, Client Director, JKR

By James Joice, Client Director, JKR

On every American Express card, just beneath the long number, it says: "Member since... " It's a small but significant detail. It tells us that AmEx is not just a card, it's a club. And an exclusive one at that.

As with most clubs, there is a clear hierarchy and an ambition for members to progress. The design broadcasts this to amplify the effect, knowing full well that to this audience, more than most, status matters.

Few things project wealth and success as clearly as a black AmEx – a kudos the brand carefully protects with its "by invitation only" policy.

American Express applies design with purity and purpose. It reflects the visual language of bank notes – a central, important historical figure in the gladiator; ornate borders to frame and elevate the content; intricate detail and repeat pattern throughout to deter fraud.

The colours borrow established monetary codes – green (from the American "greenback"), and gold and platinum. Black creates a tier of its own: made from titanium, this card carries more weight than others – literally.

Other details, such as the four-digit security code on the front of the card, as opposed to the standard three numbers on the back, distance AmEx from the rest. Of course, this also applies to the higher commission it charges, which is why it is not universally accepted.

Perhaps the ultimate proof of the brand's strength is that an establishment can stand a little taller if it can say, "We take American Express".


TIMELINE

1850: American Express was formed.

1891: The company launched its Travellers Cheques.

1920: It made pound sterling Travellers Cheques available.

1958: American Express launched its first card, which was purple and made of paper.

1959: It introduced a plastic card in the US – an industry first.

1975: David Ogilvy coined the brand's 'Don't leave home without it' line.

1981: American Express introduced its Gold Card in the UK.

1987: It launched its 'Membership has its privileges' campaign.

1993: The Membership Miles (now Membership Rewards) scheme was introduced in the UK.

1997: The brand formed a partnership with designer Alexander McQueen.

1999: It made the ultra-exclusive black Centurion Card available to customers in the UK.

2000: The co-branded British Airways AmEx Card was launched.

2004: American Express rolled out its global 'My Life. My Card' campaign.

2012: It launched a partnership with Foursquare.

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