For at least a few years, American Express has been leading its category in marketing innovation. OPEN Forum turned the card you carry into a robust social system membership. Members Project was social before social was hot. By putting the reigns in cardmembers' hands this program redefined corporate giving and, I'd argue, provided the blueprint for later entrants like Chase Community Giving. While many other issuers still rely on tactical promotions to bump-up fan counts, AmEx is forging deep partnerships with social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare and inventing new ways to transact online. It's bold stuff from one of the biggest brands in the world, but it's hardly rocket science. And that's a good thing.
Yesterday at a Direct Marketing Idea Exchange (DMIX) luncheon in New York, I had the pleasure of listening to AmEx CEO & Chairman, Ken Chenault, talk to a group of 70 or so seasoned direct marketers about four key principles guiding his company forward. While he barely touched on any of the programs I've outlined above, it was clear how the principles he outlined provide a solid foundation upon which to build new marketing, product, and business innovations.
Here are Ken's four points (bolded) and my interpretations (just about everything else).
Brands are even more important today than they were yesterday. To some, living in a world of unlimited choice might mean that brands matter less. That everything is a commodity when hundreds of similar, suitable solutions are a click, post or tweet away. But unlimited choice raises the bar for informed choice. And brand can play a key role in guiding informed choice - when that brand is trusted and stands for exemplary service. When you think brand, don't think logos and taglines and corporate standards. Those in fact may not mean nearly as much as they used to. But what those things represent - your culture, your values, the value you provide, the trust you've created over time - provides the key to differentiating your business in an age when choice might be limited but trust in corporations is at an all time low. This, for example, is why thousands upon thousands of small business owners not only choose AmEx for the plastic in their wallets but choose OPEN Forum (as opposed to, say, RandomSmallBusinessCommunity.com) as their online meeting place.
Data is king. Well yes, of course it is. Chenault spoke about data as one of AmEx's most valuable assets. AmEx is (somewhat) uniquely positioned to own the data that comes from what he calls a "digital closed loop". Because they have both an extensive consumer network and an extensive merchant network they can derive powerful insights about attitudes and actions throughout the entire buy/sell process. Not everyone has that, of course. Even data monsters like Google really only see part of the process -- they know what you search for and where you clicked, but lose you before the transaction is made (especially if you end up purchasing offline). But the takeaway for any business is this: own your data and leverage it to forge a deeper understanding of your customers' actions (what they actually do) and aspirations (predictive modeling to gauge what they're likely to do in the future). If you're reading between the lines, you might already have a sense that AmEx's closed loop data has been a nice bargaining chip in its dealings with top social platforms. It's also fundamental to the guts of a program like Link Like Love, that uses your Facebook likes to deliver personalized offers.
Scale is being redefined. Here, I was hoping for a microMARKETING plug but instead got quite the opposite. Ken said, "When Facebook has 900 million people, your 10 million customers aren't enough." While you might interpret this as one-percenter, imperialist, might-makes-right thinking the underlying premise is that in a world where data is king, the more people you're connected to, the bigger your data store, and the greater your opportunity for insights. Beyond the data though, the redefinition of scale carries an interesting business insight -- that it has become more important to be inclusive than it is to be exclusive. Facebook didn't really become a business until it moved beyond its college student core and opened its doors to everyone else. AmEx has focused heavily on exclusivity for more than a century - and while their Centurion and Platinum card brands and their services that provide cardmember only access to all sorts of experiences aren't going away any time soon, they are accelerating their move into new products to attract and engage entirely new customer segments. On the one hand this could be pre-paid charge cards, while on the other it could be innovative partnerships with financial service providers in BRIC countries. It could also take the form of seamless integration with Twitter and Foursquare so there is no technical barrier to social transactions.
If you're going to transform the company around digital, it has to happen across the entire company. For all the focus on social business, the truth is that most businesses haven't even successfully made the shift from analogue to digital. For many, digital becomes a role. Digital becomes a department. Digital becomes an outpost. Walmart comes to mind - for all their innovation through Walmart Labs, that digital unit isn't even based in Bentonville where the emphasis remains squarely focused on merchandising the brick-and-mortar stores. To truly thrive in a post-digital world, companies need to converge offline and online, and every employee needs to adopt a digital-first mindset. Your traditional assets - whether those assets are a resonant brand; a large network of customers, suppliers, partners and employees; access to real world transaction data; state-of-the-art physical plants; or well-made products - are no less important today. But it's equally if not more important to develop clear, actionable plans for leveraging those assets into new, digital-forward initiatives. And it should be the responsibility of everyone in your organization to think about how to make this happen.
I think this is all pretty compelling stuff - but also practical thinking that any company can use. How do you think you might apply these four concepts to your business? What would you change? What would you add?