When American Express partnered with Facebook and Foursquare this summer, a key component of those promotional initiatives was the agreement that no personal cardmember information be shared with the social sites. That's because protecting member information is one of the cornerstones of the 161-year-old brand. But so is relentlessly jumping into new mediums, says John Hayes, the company's chief marketing officer and a 17-year veteran of American Express. Trust and security, he notes, are part of the brand's promise, even as it tries out new digital waters.
Hayes' task is both to stay ahead of trends and to guide the brand's identity in a digital age. That job requires a daily balancing act. "People want to do business with brands that they trust and respect and that will service them," Hayes says. "The reinvention requires an understanding of where the world is going, and we have watched this digital wave impact businesses and turn those businesses upside down. We recognize the payments business will be changed by the digital revolutions. Understanding that, we have to remain constant to our brand promise."
The social media work is an example of how the company approaches new opportunities. The Facebook application "Link, Like, Love" launched this summer to offer deals, access and experiences to cardmembers based on their likes and interests and those of their Facebook friends. Working with Facebook and being present in social media is an important goal for American Express, which aims to be in touch with its customers wherever they are, including social networks, Twitter, mobile and other new platforms, Hayes says. "We devised this product to sync to your card, and Facebook does not have any access to any of that data. They didn't want to access that, and they understand our customers' data has to be guarded with the utmost security," he says. The American Express partnership with Foursquare follows the same guidelines.
Those two partnerships are emblematic of the work American Express is executing as it reinvents its brand for the digital age. They also underscore the importance of testing new digital venues, but carefully analyzing them at the same time to make sure the brand stays true to its promise. "The first guiding principle for any company caught in this revolution is to stop, take a minute, breathe and remember who you are," Hayes notes.
Hayes says that philosophy has helped him to shepherd American Express into the networked society. "You have to think about things that have made this brand as enduring as it can be, and what is really critical, and once you get a clear understanding of that, then you recognize that everything else is fair game." That means a brand should try new channels, experiment in digital formats and test out emerging forums, such as social media and Web video. American Express was one of the first brands to dabble in branded Web content when it launched "Webisodes" with Jerry Seinfeld in 2004. Now it's taking an active role in social media, location-based services and Facebook marketing.
Specifically, Hayes points to the work the company did last fall to create and promote Small Business Saturday for the first time. Using Facebook as a centerpiece of the campaign, American Express encouraged cardmembers to shop at small businesses on the day after Black Friday. "We recognized that small businesses are a very important constituent, whether merchants or cardmember small business, and we set out to really support them and drive their business," he says. In the two-and-a-half weeks leading up to Small Business Saturday, American Express generated 1.4 million likes on Facebook for the effort. In addition, the small businesses that participated generated a three-times lift in revenue compared to the total retail dollars American Express logged that day. As a result, American Express will continue the campaign this holiday shopping season. "It's something we can continue to build. The metrics are telling us it's the right thing to do," Hayes adds.
Hayes also contends that taking a chance on new digital efforts is key to growth. "I am a firm believer that the only way you will learn to be most effective in marketing is to do the experimentation and find out what works. We need to find out the outcomes and how to measure the bottom line, but I believe we need to be experimenting regularly," he says.
Another example of experimentation is the Unstaged concert series that American Express developed and sponsors. The credit card company brings together popular bands like Duran Duran with film directors like David Lynch to direct the live streams of the concerts on the Web. The shows typically generate up to seven million live streams each, with the average length of viewing time hitting 18 minutes, American Express reports.
These digital experiments-turned-mainstays dovetail with Hayes' plans for the year ahead. "The most important thing from a marketing standpoint is to make sure we know where our customers and prospects are and reach out to serve them wherever they choose to be. That's what drives our channel planning and marketing planning. Listening to customers on any platform, from the phone calls we get, to whatever new technology we are making use of like Facebook and Foursquare, is a big part of how we build our plans."
Hayes tells OMMA that the work he is most proud of during his tenure includes the charitable initiatives the company has supported. For example, American Express let cardmembers make donations to Haiti's earthquake relief funds in 2010, an effort that generated $100 million in eight weeks. In addition, the company contributed to a number of projects to help rebuild Lower Manhattan after 9/11, in part by publicizing the Tribeca Film Festival to bring attention and business to that area. "The things that have been the highlights of my career are the things that have allowed us to build the business and make a positive difference. I can't think of any job more fun and more fulfilling in terms of what you get out of it," Hayes says.