SBJ/March 26 - April 1, 2001/This Weeks Issue

Sleek, simple ad befits American Express' design-forward Blue card

No one has helped stretch the envelope of what charge cards can be more than American Express. AmEx took the "we'll pay for it now so you can pay us later" generic charge card service of MasterCard and Visa and exploded its possibilities.

In recent years, AmEx has benefited from the low-interest-rate, bull-market-fueled economic expansion. In that environment, it ran advertising that did what it has historically done best: offer prestige and brand image — rather than different product attributes and benefits — as reasons not to leave home without "The Card."

Late '90s TV and print advertising featuring Jerry Seinfeld's comedic antics were replaced last year with Tiger Woods, fantasy golfing through the streets of Manhattan. The idea, buried somewhere deep inside, was that AmEx cards let users "Do More." The delivery was incredibly cool, but arguably it did more to burnish the image of the world's greatest golfer than the credit card he uses.

Strategically, AmEx's use of Woods unfortunately parallels MCI's use of Michael Jordan. When Jordan was linked to Nike and Gatorade — products close in to what he did for a living — the work resonated better. When it came to long-distance, it was hard to view Jordan credibly. Similarly, it's hard to believe that Woods' use of the American Express card helps him in any unique way.

More interesting, and successful both in concept and advertising execution, is AmEx's no annual fee, revolving charge Blue Card. American Express saw an opportunity to create a wholly contemporary new card to capture the market for younger, more wired, new economy types. You know, the kind who go to or have recently emerged from NCAA-type schools. And who watch the basketball tournament religiously.

For the Blue card, AmEx abandoned the venerable Mr. Centurion, whose visage graces all other American Express cards. Instead, there is simply a blue holographic bull's-eye on a simple neutral field, and a small smart chip embedded within. The product's launch advertising in 1999 made the card appear to be translucent, which it mistakenly and disappointingly isn't. But it's still way design-forward; the Prada of plastic.

For the NCAA tournament, the company is running two approaches. A print campaign features Dick Vitale in newspaper sports section, with Vitale's glowing dome and grin and copy that replaces the brand's well-known "Member Since ..." theme with Vitale's trademark "Awesome Since ... ." It's rather empty, but nice reinforcement advertising.

Much stronger is the work for the Blue card. And it's staggeringly simple. In 15-second TV bursts run during the games, the company is successful in telling a strong product benefit story wrapped in a personality consistent with the "wired" idea of Blue. The spot opens with a full screen shot of the now-familiar card. Unexpectedly, the blue hologram in mid-card starts buzzing and flashing red, then Inspector Gadget-like, dozens of ominous, electrified spikes shoot out of the card, making it appear impregnable. Cut to a blue frame, where white type appears: " Online fraud protection guaranteed." And a friendly voice: "Blue. From American Express." Cut back to a shot of the card, with Blue's phone number and the simple visual tag: "Forward." In/out — point made.

Unlike their rest-on-our-laurels mainline charge card approach, this is some of the hardest-working advertising out there.

Green Card                                       •••••
Blue Card                                          ••••
Client: American Express, New York
Group president, U.S. consumer and small
business services:
Al Kelly Jr.
Executive vice president, global advertising:
John Hayes
Vice president, credit card marketing:
Richard Quigley
Agency: Ogilvy & Mather, New York
CEO: Shelly Lazarus
Chief creative officer/New York,
creative director:
Rick Boyko
Managing director/New York: Bill Gray
Account supervisor, American Express
Blue Card:
Christian Jacobsen

James H. Harris (jim@thoughtstep.com) is CEO of the strategic marketing consultancy Thoughtstep Inc.

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