Marketer A-List 2012

American Express Is as Nimble as a Startup

How the Financial-Services Giant Has Mastered Art of Service in More Ways Than One

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Leslie Berland speaks the lingua franca of a startup: speed to market, simplicity, focusing on what hasn't been done before.

That's not what you expect to hear from an exec at a 162-year-old Fortune 100 financial-services giant, where Ms. Berland is senior VP-digital partnerships and development. Marketers might do well to learn that language if they want to emulate the success American Express has had not only in advertising in social and digital media but also in building out products that drive revenue across platforms from Foursquare to Twitter to Xbox.

Its moves stem from its desire to bring offers, content and experiences to its customers in the places they already are vs. forcing them to come to AmEx. It's a philosophy that thrives on simplicity. The company's Sync program, for example, lets cardholders match their cards to their Twitter, Facebook or Foursquare accounts, browse a list of offers and digitally add them to their cards through native behaviors, whether that 's checking in on Foursquare or tweeting hashtags on Twitter. When cardholders then transact with one of those merchants, a credit appears on their statements.

Where most marketers have a tendency to overcomplicate digital applications, AmEx views any potential program through the eyes of the user. The key to making Twitter Sync work, for example, is that "it all happened within a tweet -- we don't want to drive people off the platforms," Ms. Berland said, noting that her group has a five-second rule: "Do I get this in five seconds? If not, we're going to assume people drop off." Just as important, merchants didn't need to train employees to do anything different, since the offers are redeemed on a cardholder's statement.

But to only focus on AmEx's sophisticated use of social platforms would sell short its Marketer A-List nod and ignore all the other things the company does well, from its superior customer service to its easy-to-use website and rewards program, considered the best in the business. And social media flows through the brand. Previously, Ms. Berland ran social media as part of the brand's corporate communications team (which is responsible for tweeting and Facebook posting on behalf of American Express). Ms. Berland reports to Ed Gilligan, vice chairman overseeing global consumer, small-business services, merchant services and network-services groups. John Hayes, chief marketing officer, leads all advertising and sponsorship and is essentially responsible for amplification of AmEx's programs, including social media. He reports to Chairman and CEO Ken Chenault.

"American Express is helped by a strong brand image and very good reputation, which helps to drive higher satisfaction levels," said Jim Miller, senior director of the banking practice at J.D. Power. "Likewise, strong customer service and customer satisfaction reinforces American Express' brand and image. The credit-card industry is improving in customer satisfaction, but American Express is not standing still. In 2012 the company was ranked the top credit-card issuer by J.D. Power & Associates for the sixth straight year.

So how does a 65,000-person operation continue to innovate and outperform? In a talk earlier this year at General Assembly, a school for technology and startup entrepreneurs, Vice Chairman Edward Gilligan said the key was finding a small group of AmEx employees who really understood the social platforms and then giving them space to create something. "You've got to create the environment by proving that it's possible, that AmEx can move quickly," he said.

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