Case Study: American Express “Do More” Advertising Campaign

American Express had built its reputation as a prestigious charge card. In 1976 the company began its famed ‘‘Do You Know Me?’’ campaign in which celebrities ranging from dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov to puppeteer Jim Henson appeared in ads that pictured them and an AmEx Green Card bearing their names. In 1987 the ‘‘Portraits’’ campaign followed a similar formula. By aligning the brand with stars, AmEx cultivated the notion that carrying one of its cards was more akin to joining an elite country club than making a financial transaction. As later ads sniffed, ‘‘membership has its privileges.’’ In the 1980s, however, AmEx’s careful positioning began to backfire. According to Brandweek, while AmEx ‘‘clung to its old, elite ways,’’ the credit card industry went through monumental changes. With so many cards vying for consumers’ attention, Visa and MasterCard (specifically, the member banks that comprised the Visa and MasterCard consortia) began to cross-market with various businesses so they could offer incentives to consumers. For instance, by teaming up with airlines, Visa and MasterCard could entice consumers to charge purchases with the promise of frequent-flier miles. Moreover, companies such as AT&T and GM allied themselves with the Visa and MasterCard brands and began to peddle cards that tied in to phone service or car purchases. But while the entire industry became hyper-segmented, AmEx continued to sell itself on its reputation alone and lost market share as a result. Also damaging was Visa’s 1987 launch of an attack campaign that stressed Visa’s global acceptance by featuring countless businesses that declined to take American Express. Further limiting AmEx’s appeal was the fact that the company continued to charge its hefty $55 membership fee, while Visa and MasterCard offered fee-free cards and low interest rates. Taken together these factors weakened AmEx considerably. In fact more than 2 million AmEx cardholders canceled their memberships in the early 1990s, and the company’s share of the domestic credit card market sank from nearly 20 percent in 1990 to 16 percent in 1995, according to Fortune.

American Express Logo

In 1995 AmEx began to explore new ways to stanch the flood of cardholders abandoning AmEx and to persuade existing cardholders to use AmEx more often. After negotiating an agreement with Delta Airlines, AmEx was able to offer a frequent-flier program like those of its rivals. The company also debuted its Membership Rewards program, which gave consumers points for each AmEx purchase made. These points could then be redeemed for bonuses such as gift certificates, travel vouchers, or car rentals at an array of participating businesses. AmEx also introduced the Optima card, a revolving credit account similar to Visa and MasterCard in that consumers could carry a balance on it from month to month rather than having to pay it in full at the close of each billing period (as the Green Card required). Moreover, AmEx pushed more retailers to accept its cards. This effort was punctuated by the inauguration of the ‘‘Do More’’ campaign in June 1996. ‘‘This company has had a great history of reinventing itself,’’ Hayes told American Banker. ‘‘This is the next logical step.’’

Target Audience

Because AmEx wanted to use ‘‘Do More’’ ads to gain new cardholders, the company crafted individual ads to appeal to distinct groups, especially those that it had not targeted in its previous advertising. One of the key approaches AmEx used to broaden its customer base was to employ spokespeople who counteracted the company’s image as ‘‘a stodgy, premium brand that caters to older customers,’’ according to the Wall Street Journal. In 1997, for instance, AmEx signed Woods, who had won the Masters Tournament that year. As a 21-year-old phenomenon of mixed race, Woods provided AmEx an opportunity to reach younger consumers as well as African-American consumers. It was essential to AmEx’s future that it garner younger consumers because they ‘‘tend to stick with the first credit card they use,’’ explained USA Today. Furthermore, Woods was able ‘‘to cross every demographic line . . . and appeal to an audience that makes $250,000 a year as well as an audience that makes $25,000,’’ an industry analyst told American Banker.

Seinfeld, who pitched the Green Card in spots that aired during such high-profile events as the Super Bowl, was another figure that transcended the traditional AmEx audience. ‘‘The Seinfeld advertising has attracted a new and younger group to the franchise and has also helped promote everyday usage, which is key,’’ Hayes told Brandweek. While AmEx was typically associated with the travel and leisure retail sector, the company wanted to increase the routine purchases consumers charged each month to their AmEx cards. Instead of presenting Seinfeld in the same sort of glamorous settings that permeated ‘‘Portraits’’ or ‘‘Do You Know Me?’’ AmEx showed Seinfeld wielding his Green Card at grocery stores and gas stations. One commercial paired Seinfeld with the animated figure of Superman and portrayed Seinfeld (rather than the caped hero) rescuing Lois Lane at a grocery store by pulling out his AmEx card. (She had forgotten her wallet; Superman’s costume had no pockets; Seinfeld paid for the food.)

Similarly, in the 1998 series of spots for AmEx’s Small Business Services division, the company focused on African-American, Latino, and female entrepreneurs. ‘‘We have represented the three groups who represent the strongest growth in new business starts,’’ an AmEx spokesperson told Brandweek. In the 1998 ads that did present wealthy and prominent businesspeople, AmEx chose the likes of Jake Burton, a snowboarding pioneer, and Earvin ‘‘Magic’’ Johnson, a basketball hall-of-famer who had been diagnosed with HIV, both of whom Hayes classified as ‘‘people who have challenged the status quo and appreciated the service we give . . . [They are] not just those that fit the traditional view of success.’’ Despite AmEx’s desire to broaden its consumer base, it was careful not to ‘‘move downscale,’’ as Hayes described it in Brandweek. The company had considerable brand equity rooted in AmEx’s reputation for superior service, and it did not want to alienate its core group of affluent card users. ‘‘Creating the balance where the brand becomes accessible, yet . . . remains special at the same time, is a real challenge,’’ Hayes said. AmEx relied on its spokespeople’s ability to walk this tightrope. Though Woods was young, he was nevertheless a golfer, a player of a sport popular among businessmen. Moreover, Woods was not a rebellious upstart. Though barely out of his teens, he was one of the best golfers in the world. Similarly, Seinfeld’s hit sitcom was watched by a huge audience. Popular with many viewers, Seinfeld was not exclusively a Generation X hero, and the commercials featuring him also appealed to AmEx’s older cardholders as well.

Competition

Industry leader Visa had persisted in its attacks on AmEx since the 1985 launch of its ‘‘It’s Everywhere You Want to Be’’ campaign. Although Visa’s share of the domestic credit-card market fell to 48.8 percent from 49.2 percent in 1996, it continued to portray businesses, restaurants, and entertainment providers that would not accept AmEx as a way to stress the universality of its own cards. Like AmEx, Visa also addressed specific new markets in its 1998 efforts. Under the umbrella of the ‘‘Everywhere’’ theme, Visa targeted Generation X consumers in ‘‘The Attic,’’ a commercial featuring a trendy used-clothing store. In ‘‘eToys,’’ a television spot for an online merchant, Visa linked itself to the growing e-commerce sector by presenting itself as the credit card of choice for Internet purchases. With a commercial highlighting Jack Nicklaus’s golf school (which only took Visa), Visa tried to reach more affluent cardholders. A cornerstone of Visa’s marketing strategy was its sponsorship of sporting events. In addition to being the official sponsor of the National Football League (NFL), horse racing’s Triple Crown races (the Kentucky Derby, the Belmont Stakes, and the Preakness), and NASCAR auto racing, Visa had been an Olympic Games sponsor since 1986. Visa used the 1998 Winter Olympic Games as a platform to reinforce its message of global acceptance. As a Visa executive explained in the January 30, 1998, edition of American Banker, ‘‘nothing was better for a brand’’ than associating itself with the Olympics. Like American Express, Visa also endeavored to expand its empire—and its name recognition—beyond credit cards. In 1998 Visa continued to promote its debit card, the Visa CheckCard, with big-budget advertisements depicting celebrities being hassled for identification when writing a check. Visa touted its small-business cards as well. According to the October 5, 1998, issue of Advertising Age, Visa’s long-term goal was to leverage ‘‘its brand equity into different kinds of payment.’’ MasterCard, too, vied to be consumers’ card of choice. Breaking free from a long period of mediocre advertising and negligible growth, in 1997 the company debuted ‘‘Priceless,’’ which ‘‘became one of the industry’s most admired campaigns, creating an almost nonstop buzz . . . [and] raising consumer awareness and consumer usage of the card,’’ Adweek raved. Using the tagline ‘‘There Are Some Things Money Can’t Buy. For Everything Else There’s MasterCard,’’ MasterCard’s agency, McCann-Erickson, made an emotional appeal to its viewers. These print and television advertisements showed scenes of various activities, such as a father and child at a baseball game and an older couple celebrating a wedding anniversary. The voice-over announced the cost of various aspects of these endeavors, and the commercials all culminated in a ‘‘priceless’’ moment (such as ‘‘real conversation with 11-year-old son’’ at the end of the baseball spot), followed by the campaign’s tagline. Buoyed by ‘‘Priceless,’’ MasterCard’s purchase volume rose 16 percent from 1997 to 1998 and its market share remained steady, increasing slightly to 27.8 percent from 27.6 percent, according to Credit Card News.

Advertising Strategy

Because the primary goal of ‘‘Do More’’ was to establish the brand’s relevance to diverse consumers, AmEx used a targeted strategy to pair specific messages with specific groups. For instance, the print executions portraying small-business entrepreneurs ran almost entirely in publications such as Success, Entrepreneur, and Forbes. The initial Tiger Woods ads touting American Express Financial Advisors favored major newspapers (especially the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and USA Today) and newsweeklies (including Time and Newsweek) over lifestyle publications. AmEx chose to air the Seinfeld commercials on mainstream, high-profile television programming because the company hoped the comedian could connect a mass audience of credit-card users to the Green Card. ‘‘Superman’’ first appeared during NFL playoff games, which reached viewers across demographic lines.

The message of ‘‘Do More’’ was that AmEx—not Visa or MasterCard—could improve one’s ventures and that AmEx was a global solution always available to make things better (or easier). Part of the way AmEx delivered this message was by making its ads attention-getters. The spokespeople chosen to represent the various facets of the brand were not only well known but also had a certain renegade charm. Certainly Johnson was one of the greatest basketball players of all time, and his excellence was intended to mirror AmEx’s reputation for service and prestige. But Johnson had also shocked the nation when he announced he was HIV-positive. Pundits had decried him, and some fellow basketball players even shunned him. Using him in the AmEx spots was a daring choice and attracted much notice.

Similarly, the ‘‘Superman’’ spot was designed ‘‘to break through commercial clutter,’’ Hayes said. Instead of banking on Seinfeld’s celebrity, AmEx created a commercial that juxtaposed him with a comic book character and spoofed the notion of any credit card (or personality) being able to ‘‘save the day.’’ As he took his AmEx card out of his pocket, Seinfeld spun around in a blur. An onlooker asked, ‘‘What’s with the spinning?’’ ‘‘He idolizes me,’’ Superman wryly explained. ‘‘It’s embarrassing.’’ Again, the notion was to twist the genre slightly, to prompt viewers to sit up and take note that American Express was not quite what everyone assumed it to be. In 1999 AmEx extended its association with Seinfeld. One noteworthy spot showed the comedian embarking on a cross-country road trip after observing that he needed to ‘‘get some kind of real life.’’ In keeping with his persona, his adventures were simultaneously largescale and trivial: among other activities, he saw Mount Rushmore, held a cup of coffee that was too hot, had a conversation with an attractive blond woman, and visited the Saint Louis Arch.

American Express updated the ‘‘Do More’’ concept in 2000, adapting the tagline to a subcampaign dubbed ‘‘Moments of Truth,’’ the first phase of which consisted of five TV spots featuring ordinary people. Each of these commercials focused on the fact that AmEx offered ‘‘more’’ services than its competitors. For instance, American Express’s travel-assistance benefits were touted in one spot that showed a woman waiting fruitlessly at an airport baggage claim. Another spot emphasized American Express’s partnership with the bulk-sales supermarket Costco; yet another focused on the company’s online-banking offerings via the juxtaposition of a ‘‘wired’’ young woman with her ‘‘analog’’ father, who was paying bills by hand. The tagline’s flexibility was further demonstrated by that year’s highest-profile and most imaginative spot, which featured Tiger Woods playing an outsized game of golf on the streets of Manhattan. Woods was shown swatting a ball over the Empire State Building and then from Central Park all the way downtown to Wall Street, before sinking a putt in a paper cup positioned on the Brooklyn Bridge. In this case ‘‘do more’’ was intended as a suggestion that American Express could help cardholders realize their most ambitious hopes.

American Express "Do More" Advertising Campaign

American Express Company’s ‘‘Do More’’ campaign truly was a global one, running in 23 different countries simultaneously. Although the same basic ads were used everywhere, the ad agency Ogilvy & Mather changed small details when appropriate. ‘‘We’ve created an overall platform for positioning,’’ John Hayes, the company’s head of global advertising, told Advertising Age. ‘‘We make modifications and customizations everywhere to make sure what we do is right.’’ Golfer Tiger Woods proved an especially valuable global representative—particularly in Japan, where golf was a passion among a large percentage of the population.

Campaign Outcome

When AmEx inaugurated ‘‘Do More’’ in 1996, critics predicted that the company would lose its ability to differentiate itself by shedding some of its snobbish image. Ogilvy and AmEx quickly seemed to prove the skeptics wrong, however: the company’s 1996 purchase volume rose 15.6 percent, and ‘‘after years of decline,’’ its 1997 share of the domestic credit-card market climbed to 17 percent from 16.4 percent, according to Advertising Age. AmEx posted global market share declines in 1998 and 1999, but this was partly a result of the Visa and MasterCard emphasis on debit cards, a product AmEx did not offer. AmEx countered with its most successful product launch in recent memory, the Blue Card, aimed at college-age consumers and other young adults. The ranks of Blue Card holders steadily increased in 2000 and 2001, and AmEx unveiled a Blue Card designed for small-business owners. Although the Blue Card’s marketing did not fall under the ‘‘Do More’’ umbrella, it did build on the strategy of democratizing the traditionally upscale AmEx brand image, an approach whose merits were no longer questioned at the beginning of the new century. This change in perception was perhaps a measure of the success of the brand re-positioning accomplished through the ‘‘Do More’’ campaign.

The Seinfeld and other ‘‘Do More’’ spots aired through 2001, but AmEx, like many advertisers, struggled to find appropriate ways to promote itself in the somber months after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. AmEx’s post-9/11 difficulties were compounded by the fact that the company’s headquarters were located at the World Financial Center, adjacent to the Twin Towers, which had collapsed. In early 2002 the ‘‘Do More’’ tagline was dropped in favor of ‘‘Make Life Rewarding.’’ Both Seinfeld and Woods continued to be involved with the American Express brand.

Reference: Encyclopedia of Major Marketing Campaigns. Thomas Riggs

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