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Deep Dive

Amex brand boss Naysla Edwards on Covid loyalty shifts, massive uplift from local campaigns, recycling media budgets and fixing hypertargeting fails

By Josh McDonnell - Senior Writer

20 October 2020 5min read

Amex's Naysla Edwards: “We knew how important the Shop Small strategy was, not just for us but our merchant customers, especially with businesses struggling and in need of continued local support. So we maintained spend in above the line media."

By Josh McDonnell - Senior Writer

20 October 2020 5min read

Post-Covid, American Express has slashed its ad campaigns from eight to two and recycled the budget into product and loyalty. The results are paying off, say VP of Brand, Charge Cards and Experiences, Naysla Edwards and WPP Chief Strategy Officer, Rose Herceg. Meanwhile, its annual Shop Small campaign is delivering huge uplift, and has been brought forward six months as a result, while also preparing for business to reopen post-lockdown - though hypertargeting aspects did not initially go to plan.

 

What you need to know:

  • American Express scaled back brand messaging during Covid, cutting from eight to two campaigns and prioritising its ‘Shop Small’ series
  • Amex saw a 60% increase in its card members’ spending following the Q1 2020 Shop Small campaign, with residual 20% uplift after the campaign ended. 
  • Also recorded 26% increase in the total transactions made by card members during the campaign’s run, with 8% residual uplift post-campaign.
  • Used Covid to experiment with content and platforms for hypertargeting with Shop Small campaign - with creative tweaks doubling impact.
  • It has brought the campaign forward from November to June this year and expects "similar outcomes", says Naysla Edwards, VP Brand, Charge Cards and Experiences.
  • Amex also reassessed membership partners, expanding its focus from travel and live events to include food delivery and streaming.
  • It recycled budget from streamlined campaigns into partnerships, for example doubling tap and pay limits to $200 with Apple, Google and Samsung.
  • The brand also launched member and non-member virtual events, such as a concert by Alicia Keys.

 

“We’re a brand that focuses heavily on small to medium businesses in Australia and we know that requires localisation in our media spend and channels. Radio and outdoor act as strong audience reach platforms for us to engage with those SMEs and relevant consumers, both in metro and regional areas.”

- Naysla Edwards, American Express VP of Brand, Charge Cards and Experiences

Points of difference

Member rewards programs have long been central to American Express’s customer attraction and retention efforts, helping to keep its 110 million active cardholders loyal and spending.

Covid, however, necessitated a rapid rethink.

“We are known for our benefits and the ability of our members to spend points on things such as flights, accommodation and live events – most of which have been and remain impacted by Covid,” says Naysla Edwards, Amex VP Brand, Charge Cards and Experiences.

While keeping its traditional travel and leisure partners onboard, the brand quickly moved with the action, creating offers with Amazon Prime and food delivery companies Menulog, Deliveroo and Uber Eats, while also allowing members to pay off their credit card bills with points.

 “These [traditional] partnerships are invaluable to us and are an incredible benefit to our acquisition and retention strategies, so maintaining a presence with existing companies while also introducing new partners was vital to our brand,” Edwards says.

Meanwhile, it needed to find ways to keep exclusive events going. While the whole world appears to have gone virtual, Amex did it with a technology twist, using Extended Reality (XR, which combines real and virtual world environments), to create the next best thing to a live performance by Alicia Keys last month.

The brand also offered some members virtual meet and greet opportunities with Keys and cardholders could also purchase exclusive packages that included “Behind the Stream” content before the performance.

Unable to disclose attendance figures, Edwards nevertheless says the number of member and non-member attendees was “extremely encouraging”.

Rose Herceg, Chief Strategy Officer at WPP, which is Amex’s creative and digital agency partner, says the approach “is an example of where the digital offering needs to go above and beyond if brands are to retain customer loyalty.

“It needs to be more than a discount through an email. There needs to be exclusivity or an offer that shows a real point of difference – which is why brands having the most success are investing more in their e-commerce, owned channels and platforms.”

“We knew how important the Shop Small strategy was going to be, not just for us but our merchant customers, especially with businesses struggling and in need of continued local support. So we maintained spend in above the line media.”

- Naysla Edwards, American Express VP of Brand, Charge Cards and Experiences

Maintain spend, local focus

As Covid took hold, many brands opted to go dark, cut budgets or ditch above the line campaigns, funnelling cash into social and performance marketing instead.

However, Edwards says radio and outdoor remained a mainstay for Amex.

“We’re a brand that focuses heavily on small to medium businesses in Australia and we know that requires localisation in our media spend and channels,” Edwards says.

“Radio and outdoor act as strong audience reach platforms for us to engage with those SMEs and relevant consumers, both in metro and regional areas.”

The two channels do much of the heavy lifting for Amex’s annual “Shop Small” campaign.

Now in its eighth year, “Shop Small” points customers towards local businesses that accept Amex cards and offers rewards for those who use their card to shop in-store.

During this year’s campaign, Amex saw a 60% uplift in card member spend, with a residual 20% uplift after the campaign period. 

It also recorded a 26% increase in total transactions made by card members during the same period, with an 8% residual increase post-campaign.

“We knew how important the strategy was going to be, not just for us but our merchant customers as well, especially with businesses struggling and in need of continued local support,” Edwards says.

“So we maintained spend in above the line media, which I know may seem surprising given the number of brands that halted a lot of that spend.”

The campaign was “so successful” in its latest iteration, that Edwards and the team bought it forward six months, launching it in June this year, rather than November.

The decision was also aligned with many shops opening across the country in a post-lockdown environment.

“That’s something we would never have thought to do, as we stick to a defined schedule. But in these circumstances, everything needs to be adjustable wherever necessary,” she says.

“We’re yet to see the results of the latest campaign, but we wouldn’t have launched early if we weren’t expecting similar outcomes.”

 

“As we come out of this, it’s not going to be just about who ‘kept the lights on’ during Covid, flooding customers with irrelevant messaging. It’s going to be about the brands that invested in improving their products, services and digital capabilities."

- Rose Herceg, WPP Chief Strategy Officer

Reallocating media spend

While Amex has concentrated its firepower on Shop Small, its decision to shift from eight campaigns to two has reduced overall media spend.

However, Edwards says the decision was not driven by cost, but by relevance.

“It wouldn’t have made sense to run campaigns around travel or entertainment when the lockdown was in effect and people were restricted, as they still are in some cases,” she says. “Instead, we used that time and effort to invest back into our own channels and develop those new member rewards partnerships.”

One example was doubling its tap and pay transaction limit to $200 across Apple, Google and Samsung Pay platforms. Other major banks such as CommBank continue with $100 limits.

“We managed to turn that around in a month, starting in June and launching by the start of July, providing another point of difference as a business,” Edwards says.

“That may seem like a small change but because of the opportunity we had to reassess our customers’ needs rather than be working on our next campaign, we were able to enhance our offering and make adjustments based on their feedback.”

WPP’s Rose Herceg says brands can learn from Amex’s approach, suggesting the avalanche of vanilla Covid comms may have been put to better use.

“As we come out of this, it’s not going to be just about who ‘kept the lights on’ during Covid, flooding customers with irrelevant messaging. It’s going to be about the brands that invested in improving their products, services and digital capabilities,” Herceg says.

“Anyone can roll out campaign after campaign, but that’s not what builds brand equity with customers. The proof has got to be in the outcome, are they better off shopping with you? Is there a clear value exchange?” she adds.

“The brands that have made this shift will be the ones that not only retain customers, but also get them to increase their usual spend. That’s the new challenge.”

 

“The shops featured in some areas weren’t distinguishable or didn’t work well within the basic structure of the creative. This is where being hyperlocal can be tricky, so we moved quickly back to generic imagery, but kept the name and location of the original business. From there we saw a significant increase in engagement.”

- Naysla Edwards, American Express VP of Brand, Charge Cards and Experiences

Hypertargeting: fail fast and fix things

While Amex has enjoyed success with its “Shop Small” campaign, it has also learned lessons on the fly when it comes to its digital marketing strategy.

“We used a lot of above the line this year, but we also attempted a new strategy when it came to hypertargeting,” Edwards says. That initially involved used of actual photos of the businesses with whom Amex was encouraging customers to spend.

Edwards says the issue was some of the businesses appearing in feeds weren’t resonating due to geo-targeting problems and a lack of visual recognition.

“Immediately we realised that there was an issue, and it was down to the imagery we were using, such as in-store or shopfront pictures,” Edwards says.

“The shops featured in some areas weren’t distinguishable or didn’t work well within the basic structure of the creative.

“This is where being hyperlocal can be tricky, so we moved quickly back to generic imagery, but kept the name and location of the original business,” she says. “From there we saw a significant increase in engagement.”

While unable to provide precise figures, Edwards says it performed almost twice as well as the original strategy.

“The ability to test and fail has been one of our biggest takeaways this year,” Edwards says.

“We tried something new, which clearly wasn’t yielding the level of engagement we were hoping for. However, it provided us with a better understanding of how to use that channel.

“That’s been one of the silver linings to Covid, the opportunity push and pull in new tech and media with the hope of developing something that can become part of our overall marketing strategy.”

Herceg says this is an example of where digital marketing must work “hand in glove” with creative teams – and she suggests that Amex’s example flips the argument that creative has not been able to adapt to technology.

 “In this instance, there was a very powerful creative idea that was forced to take a step back due to the advertising technology it was using,” Herceg says.

“I think this is where marketers and agencies need to invest a little more in their creative budgets to ensure they are getting the best possible outcome - rather than just diving for whatever new shiny tech is available.”

 

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