AmEx retools ad effort to global vision

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American Express Co. is on the verge of breaking a new corporate ad campaign that's part of a massive image overhaul.

The embattled charge card wants to refocus attention on its heritage as a widely accepted international brand with the new campaign, which is expected to be creatively adaptable around the world as AmEx adds new financial products and services.

Creative details from the campaign--likely to be handled by Ogilvy & Mather, New York, agency of record for AmEx's $80 million account--are expected to be disclosed as early as this week. Young & Rubicam handles advertising for AmEx's financial services products.

GOODBYE TO SEINFELD?

Industry analysts are betting AmEx will finally say goodbye to ad spokesman Jerry Seinfeld. The comedian began appearing for AmEx in 1993.

"There's been a lot of criticism of Seinfeld [being] in American Express' ads, and it's a confusing positioning that draws attention away from the product," said Peter Lucas, associate editor of Credit Card Management.

AmEx's image overhaul calls for breaking down barriers establishing the brand as a broader financial vehicle both here and abroad. That includes entering the debit card and "smart"--computer-encoded--card arenas, as well as electronic commerce, where AmEx is already experimenting.

AmEx also is pushing for worldwide acceptance by the banks that take No. 1 credit card Visa, from Visa International. That could pave AmEx's way to becoming a much more powerful global brand.

Currently, AmEx claims 14% of worldwide charge volume of $1.1 trillion; Visa claims 51% and MasterCard 31%.

Insiders say executives at AmEx have wrestled for months with the specific direction of its new advertising, as the new global agenda has clashed with the company's more staid approach.

FIRST EFFORT UNDER HAYES

The campaign will be the first major effort under John Hayes, appointed exec VP-global marketing in April 1995.

Mr. Hayes was previously president of Lowe & Partners/SMS, New York, where he oversaw advertising for major global brands including Coca-Cola Co.

AmEx has reason to believe it will succeed, especially after Visa International's European bank members decided last week not to adopt a rule blocking acceptance of AmEx cards, despite potential opposition from European Union antitrust authorities.

Visa's U.S. member banks currently are not allowed to issue AmEx or Discover cards; they can, however, issue cards from MasterCard International.

AmEx has vowed to continue its push for acceptance at Visa banks in the U.S. and is now expected to begin shoring up relationships with banks in new markets around the world.

"American Express is trying to break the world barrier--a universal ad campaign that could be used in many markets and cultures would make sense for them. It would be a real plus," Mr. Lucas said.

CO-BRANDED DELTA CARD

In January, AmEx announced a co-branded card with Delta Air Lines under its revolving-balance Optima brand. Since its launch, the Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express has lured an estimated 700,000 accounts, according to Brittain Associates.

AmEx is waiving the new card's $55 fee to existing charge card customers, which means it's gradually converting thousands of customers over to revolving-credit users.

Contributing: Laura Petrecca.

Copyright June 1996 Crain Communications Inc.

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