The smart-dressed man in the three-piece suit returns to his hotel room, tosses aside his newspaper and throws a wallet down on the dresser. "This man has worked a long hard day and he's got a lot of money to show for it-other people's money," comes a familiar, authoritative voiceover in the background, as the man in the hotel room smiles and tosses down a second wallet...and then another, and another. "He's a pickpocket," the voice continues. "His take? $700."
Fifteen seconds into the 30-second spot, and the viewer is already incensed by the thief's smug expression. But any child of 1970s television knows what comes next: the sight of Karl Malden in a conservative suit and hat-the outfit he wore keeping The Streets of San Francisco safe on television-sitting behind the desk at a busy American Express office, advising that if you carry American Express travelers checks instead of cash, your money will be protected from thieves like that. And with a reassuring smile, Malden says, "Don't leave home without them."
"Make life rewarding." "Membership has its privileges." "Do you know me?" "Do more." "My life, my card." The campaign slogans are as familiar as the celebrities in the commercials who have used the American Express card as a passage to adventure, security and convenience. For decades, the message American Express has delivered on television and, more recently, across multiple platforms, can perhaps best be summed up by another of the company's campaigns: "A world of service." And its stellar track record, familiar presence, dedication to customers and commitment to reputation have continually set it apart among brands.
"We begin with the notion that it's noble to serve," says John Hayes, executive vice president and head of global advertising and brand management and chief marketing officer at American Express. "So from a marketing standpoint, the organization believes it can make a meaningful difference in people's lives, and we're bound to end up with creative executions that will excite people. The things we do affect people's lives in a positive way. When you think about it, for a brand, that's an enviable starting point."
And from that point, American Express makes its goals and preferences heard not only in ads but in the programming it underwrites and supports and the economy- spurring initiatives it sponsors. Those commitments are trademarks that have guided the B&C Hall of Fame honoree for decades.
"American Express is a company among the absolute top ranks in the transformation from client to partner-I consider them a media partner, not a marketing or advertising client," says Lauren Zalaznick, chairman, NBCUniversal Entertainment & Digital Networks and Integrated Media, and herself a 2012 inductee into the B&C Hall of Fame. "They're as thoughtful and nimble in tough times as they are in buoyant circumstances."
For American Express, the use of celebrities through the years-many well-known, others famously almost recognizable-has been a key component to the appeal of its ads. Regardless of the campaign, what has never changed is a level of trust that goes beyond typical endorsement; the viewer never gets the impression that appearing in an American Express ad is a "job," which is a function of the foundational prep work the creative team does before any filming begins. And the A-list of names includes the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, Robert DeNiro and Ellen DeGeneres, not to mention, historically, the likes of Mel Blanc, Stephen King and John Cleese.
"When we start to put together a commercial to feature a celebrity, we focus on that person's real-life experience with the card, Hayes says. "We don't show up with a script and ask them to say certain things; we spend our time focused on cocreating an idea with an individual....Whether it's a small business or a celebrity, they talk about American Express the way they see it. Take Ellen DeGeneres: Those are Ellen's words about her life with American Express and the role the card has played in her life."
For small businesses, the role the company has played in the last several years has been equally memorable. Since 2010, its "Small Business Saturday" program has used an elaborate cross-platform campaign to encourage holiday shoppers to buy from local brick-and-mortar shops on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. And the "Shine a Light" program, created in conjunction with NBCUniversal, allows consumers to nominate their favorite businesses, with the winners receiving grant money and additional support. It is, in a sense, a winning recession-era stopgap that urges the return of some cash to the community.
"The Shine a Light campaign was game-changing," Zalaznick says. "It was a real comarketing partnership [with NBCU] that brought all the ingenuity and commitment of American Express to the community. They really took this mission of service plus security and extended that to ...the small-business owner. It was something that only American Express could do."
Not surprisingly for a company that earned its reputation for commitment to prestige, service and security, American Express has long put some of its funds toward sponsoring everything from programs to better teach teens the financial facts of life, to the annual Tribeca Film Festival; and has contributed to hundreds of non-profit organizations through its foundation.
In each case American Express relies on a strategic mix of platforms and social media to get the message out there. "The [content] channels are evolving, as are the things we can do," Hayes says. "And when we do it right, we see a harmony across channels that creates more business and impact." Adds Zalaznick with admiration: "For one of the oldest companies to be endlessly innovating as market leaders across new platforms? That's truly unusual."
But with age, Hayes maintains, comes experience, and the proven belief that if you stick to what brought you your success, you can't fail. When Hayes gives talks, he frequently asks the audience how many folks can recall their American Express membership date, which is stamped on each card.
"And most times, I get an enthusiastic show of hands," he says. "I find that fascinating as a test of engagement. They know the date, and that marks the tenure of the relationship they're engaged with."
It's a testament to the power and influence of the brand and speaks to a commitment to customer service that's been American Express' overarching foundational message-one nobody leaves the home office without.
"Freight forwarding: That's the business we started in, in 1850," Hayes says. "The description has changed, but what defines the brand is not the card; it's how we serve customers. It's service, trust, security-those are the things that served us well in the freight-forwarding business in 1850, and it serves us well today."