With Blue, Tiger as stars, AmEx soars

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Blue has been a misnomer for American Express Co., because the card's launch last year has actually put the company in the pink.

But "Blue," and its "Blue for Business" spinoff launched earlier this year, is not the only marketing activity AmEx launched this year. It also broke new campaigns for its main brand and its small business unit.

STRONG OUT OF THE BLOCKS

"Blue has been a tremendous success . . . one of the most successful product launches we've ever done," says John D. Hayes, exec VP-global advertising and brand management at American Express. Although he would not quote figures, outside observers have estimated "Blue" met its 2000 target of 2 million cards issued by the end of the first quarter.

The new card bowed with a saturation campaign in many media American Express had never used before, such as wild postings and ads on health-club water bottles. Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, New York, handled TV and print, while Bronner.com, New York, ran an extensive online and outdoor campaign.

AmEx has adopted the multimedia strategy for its other products as well.

Mr. Hayes says "Blue" enhanced AmEx's presence as a sponsor of the U.S. Tennis Association's U.S. Open tournament with promotions to encourage card use and expanded its relationship with golfer Tiger Woods by hosting golf clinics with Mr. Woods for fans who buy tournament tickets with their American Express card.

These events not only help increase the cards visibility at the events, but also create word of mouth beyond the venue, says Mr. Hayes. The sponsorships and events don't take the place of traditional advertising, but they add an extra ingredient in the media plan, he says.

DAILY DIRECTION

American Express added many new products to its lineup in the 1990s and, in the process, the card itself repositioned from a travel and entertainment vehicle to an instrument for daily purchases, says Mr. Hayes.

With this type of positioning, he says ads had to create a broader relevance for the brand.

The Blue card was one of several efforts designed to reverse a drop in market share. AmEx dropped to 13.9% of the $1.34 trillion U.S. credit-card volume in 1999 from 25% in 1985, according to The Nilson Report, an industry newsletter. Industry observers say that's due to aggressive marketing and new features added by its main competitors, Visa Corp. and MasterCard International.

DISTINCT LOOK

The multiple products are backed by separate efforts from Ogilvy, each with a distinct look. While Blue has a futuristic ad campaign, the Small Business Services unit runs a "Voices from Main Street" campaign featuring real-life small business owners. Also, the main brand this year broke, "Moments of Truth," a slice-of-life effort featuring everything from slackers shopping at a food warehouse to a father struggling with online bill payment while his teen-age daughter looks on.

Absent from all of these has been American Express' longtime pitchman, comedian Jerry Seinfeld. Mr. Hayes says American Express has a continuing relationship with Mr. Seinfeld, and hinted there will be more ads to come.

"Now we're looking at how to evolve that relationship . . . all I can say is stay tuned," he says.