The credit-card company last week launched a national TV campaign that features players and coaches from both the NBA and the WNBA in five humorous spots from longtime agency Ogilvy & Mather, New York, part of WPP Group. The spots build on "The Official Card" campaign American Express introduced last summer prior to the U.S. Open tennis championships, an umbrella campaign for sponsorships that leverage American Express' official-card status with its sports and entertainment properties.
The campaign is a marked departure for the blue-chip company, which traditionally spends upward of $300 million in measured media each year but was barely getting any impact out of its estimated $20 million annual sponsorship with the NBA.
And that was in the eyes of the NBA's headman, not the marketer.
"I basically said to them, `Hey, we'll keep taking your money,' " Mr. Stern said in a recent interview, prompting a laugh from John Hayes, American Express' exec VP-global advertising and branding, sitting to his left. "I called him and said that we loved American Express but we wondered if they were getting the most out of their sponsorship."
That call came in 2002. Earlier this month, the two men sat in Mr. Stern's office, overlooking New York's 51st St. and St. Patrick's Cathedral, and talked about how they turned a sponsorship into a relationship, and how it affected American Express' advertising.
"He was right," Mr. Hayes said of Mr. Stern's query. "It got to the point where, after eight years [as an NBA corporate sponsor], we needed to question the value of this and what direction we wanted to go. I brought my team together and basically said, `Help me understand whether or not this should continue.' "
The discussions evolved into a plan for a new strategy. Not only did American Express have corporate sponsorships with the NBA and WNBA, but also with the U.S. Open tennis tournament, golfer Tiger Woods and the Tribeca Film Festival, among others.
Mr. Hayes said he felt American Express gained value from having these corporate sponsorships, but was looking for a way to broaden the programs' impact. At the time, the company's ad campaign revolved around spots featuring comedian Jerry Seinfeld. Mr. Hayes said American Express' relationship with Mr. Seinfeld as an endorser will continue, but there was no timetable as to when the actor/comedian would next be used in another campaign.
"There's a definite shift taking place with marketers," said Mr. Stern, who in 1984 took over a moribund league that previously had its championship finals shown on tape-delayed TV and used his marketing savvy to raise the NBA's profile. "They're looking to see what more they can get on top of their sponsorships, and that's what we wanted for American Express."
American Express tried the tactic last summer, expanding its sponsorship of the U.S. Open tennis tournament with its first-ever national ad campaign.
"They are a 10-year sponsor for us, and it was exactly what you hope all your sponsors do," said Pierce O'Neil, chief business officer of the United States Tennis Association. "They had the national TV spots with Andy Roddick and Jennifer Capriati, they had out-of-home, outdoor and a ticket promotion for cardholders to buy tickets ahead of time."
The company even introduced a promotion on-site called American Express Radio, in which it provided spectators with special radios to listen to audio feed from CBS or USA network.
The success of the tennis campaign helped persuade Mr. Hayes to renew American Express' sponsorship with the NBA, and he couldn't be more pleased with Ogilvy's concept for what became the NBA campaign currently running.
"There were many factors that we considered," Mr. Hayes said. "The NBA, more than any other sports entity, is part of popular culture. Our card member base overlaps a lot of the fan base of the NBA and WNBA. With the popularity of Yao Ming and the foreign players, we can get across the point we've always tried to make that, like the NBA, American Express is global."
The NBA campaign runs through the conclusion of the NBA playoffs in June and into early July when the WNBA season kicks off (one spot features WNBA player Sue Bird).
There's also more to come. For the Tribeca Film festival May 3 through 11, American Express will air an ad with famed director Martin Scorcese that names the company as the official card of the festival. It will also offer a special sale of tickets to the film festival for card members only. As the official sponsor of the World Golf Championships in September, American Express plans an ad with Tiger Woods and a special, on-site exhibition by Mr. Woods at Atlanta's Piedmont Park the week of the tournament.