Embracing the New

October 1, 2013

Marie Devlin serves customers’ passions at American Express

By Robin D. Schatz

“Ok, guys, I’m back, I need a template of a template,” a geek in oversize black glasses, a large bowtie, and slick-backed hair barks into a cell phone while licking an ice cream cone. Moments later, a tunic-clad sitar player calls out to her fellow musicians, “Only 164 measures to go!” Next, we meet a record nerd pawing over old albums, as she comes upon a find. “Oh, my gosh. I’ve never even seen this record. I’ve only read about it in books,” she gushes, and then proceeds to take a bite out of it with an audible crunch.

These offbeat characters, all played by Carrie Brownstein, costar and cocreator of the hit IFC show Portlandia, appear in a TV commercial for American Express. The final line of the spot: “Membership has a card for every character.” The campaign is a far cry from the company’s memorable spots of the past featuring established, well-to-do celebrity card members — people like fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, comedian Tina Fey, actor Robert De Niro, and golfer Tiger Woods.

This new tone in TV ads is just one sign that the venerable brand seeks to broaden its appeal to people who might never have considered themselves potential American Express members. “American Express has something valuable to offer all customers: membership,” says Marie Devlin, senior vice president of global advertising, media, sponsorship, and insights, who has overseen global brand marketing initiatives at the company since 2010. “If you look at our portfolio, there’s a breadth of products and services. We want to welcome more people into the American Express membership using messaging and communications that are inclusive, active, and approachable.”

In her more than three years on the job, Devlin has worked to challenge the perception that American Express is not for everyone. While the company is known for offering products to premium customers, she concedes that some non-members may feel that American Express doesn’t want them, or that the company doesn’t offer products that meet their current needs. Instead, her team is getting out the message that American Express has cards and services for everyone, and promoting membership benefits provided by products across the portfolio — from a prepaid debit product the company introduced at Walmart stores, to the company’s Platinum Card. “We’re doing a lot of work now that talks about how you are a member of a community of people who are advantaged because of their membership with us,” Devlin says. “We have a powerful network of partners, merchants, and card members that affords advantages to each person who is part of the network.”

Brand Stewardship

Devlin joined American Express after almost two decades at Quaker Oats and PepsiCo. She was most recently the chief marketing officer of Quaker Foods and Snacks, leading the marketing, consumer insights, and new product development teams for a product portfolio  that included Quaker Oats, Cap’n Crunch, and Rice-A-Roni. Admittedly, it’s a big leap from food products to financial services, but her job switch reflects a common theme: a stewardship of iconic brands. “What attracted me to American Express is how great the brand is, the company’s commitment to serving customers, and its culture of innovation. It felt very similar to my past experiences in that way.”

Devlin has not always been a marketer. After graduating with a degree in accounting from the University of Notre Dame, she landed a job at KPMG, where she worked for just over four years. But, she says, “I realized I didn’t want to do accounting forever.” So she went back to school to get her MBA in finance and marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

Her financial background, she believes, is an asset in her current role. “It’s important to understand the profitability of the business and how it gets there,” she says. “You have to think about not only what your customers value, but what it costs to deliver that value and the related selling and marketing expenses, in order to make the best trade-offs.”

When she came on board at American Express, Devlin found that existing customers understood and loved the brand, associating it with service, trust, and security. Attracting prospective customers, however, was more challenging. “Sometimes folks that have not yet had an interaction with us still know we’re a good brand. They think, ‘I’ve heard a lot of good things about American Express,’” Devlin says. “But then they admit, ‘But it’s not for me.’”

In some non-members’ minds, Devlin explains, American Express membership is “for when you have become a success, for when you’ve arrived.” Today, the company is working to spread a different message. “We are about while you’re on your journey,” she says. “Today, what we’re aiming to do is take the brand once viewed as exclusive and ‘not for me’ or ‘only for when I travel,’ to a brand with products that have great benefits you can use every day to enrich your life,” Devlin says.

Cut to the television spot with Brownstein as a suburban mom at the supermarket checkout counter with a giant jar. “Please don’t judge the amount of peanut butter we’re getting,” she tells the clerk as she swipes her American Express card. Gone are the spots of Fey boasting about how her AmEx card gives her access to the exclusive airport lounge. “We are all about finding the right product for each person,” Devlin says.

American Express was founded in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1850 as an express freight business. It gradually evolved to serve those customers’ own travel and business needs, introducing money orders in 1882 and traveler’s checks in 1891. The first American Express charge card didn’t follow until 1958. Today, the company has a variety of products that range from debit and checking account alternatives and card products, to offer platforms, and even a joint venture with Vente Privee selling designer goods at discounted prices. While best known for their fee-based charge cards that must be paid off every month, American Express today offers fee-free credit cards, as well as prepaid cards and co-branded cards with companies such as Costco, Delta, Hilton HHonors, and Starwood Hotels and Resorts, and a suite of products and services aimed at small-business owners.

One of the company’s newest products, Bluebird, is a next-generation alternative to debit and checking accounts that is sold exclusively at Walmart and online. Applicants don’t need to undergo a credit check, nor do they need a bank account. Customers can load the card with new funds at most Walmart checkout counters or get their paychecks or benefit checks deposited directly to the FDIC-insured account. They can also use their Bluebird phone app to write checks or pay a friend and manage their family’s finances.

Devlin points out that Bluebird, along with the company’s prepaid product offerings, is designed to help make American Express more appealing to a broader range of customers who may not feel that they are being properly served with other banking options. So far, the strategy seems to be working. Eighty-five percent of Bluebird cardholders are new to American Express, and 50 percent are under age 35. “We’re pleased with the response to Bluebird from customers. It underscores what we already know and believe, that consumers want to be a part of the American Express membership,” Devlin says. “They just need a product that fits their lifestyle.”

Passion Projects

Attracting a broader membership takes “really getting to know our prospective customers, what makes them tick, and inspiring engagement with the brand,” Devlin says.

To that end, American Express commissioned The LifeTwist Study from the Futures Co., a global strategic insight and innovation consultancy headquartered in London. The results, released in May, indicate a profound shift in the way people judge personal success. According to the report, “Americans have recalibrated the linear path to which previous generations once aspired. In its place, people are embarking on a route full of twists, turns, detours, and side trips.”

Eighty-three percent of those surveyed called themselves “a work in progress,” and respondents said the biggest markers of personal success are good health and “finding time for the important things in life.” They ranked having “a lot of money” only 20th, out of a list of 22 contributors to success. And 75 percent of respondents placed the pursuit of an interest or hobby at the top of their bucket list.

Inspired by that data, American Express launched the Passion Project, a series of videos on YouTube that profiled “makers, creators, and mold breakers.” These Passion Project members are people doing important, creative, and personally meaningful things — for example, Scott Harrison, founder of Charity: Water, which brings clean, safe drinking water to communities in developing countries. “We also invited the general public to submit their own Passion Projects,” Devlin says. Ten entries per month, through the end of 2013, are awarded an American Express gift card worth $2,000 to support their passions. Moreover, Passion Project participants can share inspirational stories and read articles about how to live a more fulfilling life on the blogging platform Tumblr.

In another effort to reach out to a wider audience, the company launched the American Express Unstaged concert series in 2010 that live-streamed concerts in partnership with YouTube and music-video distributor Vevo. The digital platform pairs a renowned director with a musical act. It’s part of a long tradition of sponsoring musical events for the benefit of its members and prospects, Devlin says.

“We know that so many people are passionate about music and we want to introduce our brand to those who may not be familiar with it by bringing them unique content that they can actively engage with,” she explains. “Viewers
have the ability to select camera angles, join the conversation through a Twitter aggregator, and even impact the live performances. Unstaged is an example of how we are trying to show how American Express can enrich areas of peoples’ lives that they are most passionate about and begin building a relationship that can ultimately lead to membership.”

As American Express forges ahead with an ambitious agenda, Devlin stresses that the brand’s original guiding principles — service, trust, and security — are the very things that will allow the company to attract new members. “Accomplishing everything that we have set out to do will undoubtedly present challenges. But the legacy, heritage, and history of 160 years also gives us an advantage,” she asserts. “We know exactly what American Express stands for, and we are not changing the brand. Those guiding principles are ultimately what allow us to enter new markets, welcome in new customers, and create win-win situations for our business and our customers.”


"Embracing the New." Robin D. Schatz. ANA Magazine. Fall 2013.

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