Jerry Walsh has once again come up with a big marketing idea. Walsh, executive vice president of worldwide marketing for and the creative genius behind American Express, has discovered an idea that is exactly what he is looking for—something to replace the venerable "Do You Know Me?" ads and head off challenges from Visa and Diners Club. It is the ultimate in soft sell, he insists; the kind of pitch you are more likely to see on public television than on the networks. The ads don't talk to people about American Express as much as they talk to people about themselves, about their values and lifestyles. "This new campaign is going to cause tremendous excitement. It's what we do best—it's the Big Idea."
This is one in a long string of big ideas. Big ideas that have turned American Express in what some experts say is the nation's top marketer. Big ideas like the "Interesting Lives" ad campaign, which taught corporate America a whole new way of selling to women. Promotion like the company's cause-related campaign to aid the restoration of the Statue of Liberty that gave doing good deeds a gilt edge. Each time the credit card was used, the company made a donation, which netted USD 1.7 million for Miss Liberty and made millions for the company in fees from increased card use.
The ability of American Express to communicate to the public in new ways made it the most successful provider of credit cards, travel, and financial services. In 1993, the American Express card (the heart of the company's business) rang nearly USD 80 billion in purchases in nearly 60 million separate transactions, making it the card most used by Americans.
Much of the credit for success must go to the manner in which American Express has taken big ideas and converted them into major marketing programs. The process begins with "the hunt". Big ideas can be found anywhere, by anyone—and everybody keeps an eye peeled. The "Interesting Lives” idea, for example, was buried deep in the copy of a new "women's" ad campaign, developed by their agency Ogilvy and Mather. Since the campaign began in 1983, the number of new card members who are women has jumped from 29 per cent to more than 50 per cent. Moreover, notes Walsh, "Big ideas make us unstoppable because they take the high ground. There's no way to counteract big ideas without imitating them."
American Express has a very unstructured corporate environment. Consequently, every big idea needs a "champion", someone who can charge ahead with the big idea with a minimum of restraint. Champions are allowed a free rein because management trusts their top people. Failure is no big deal at American Express. Marketing research does not drive the business—instinct does.
Since there are always four or five big ideas competing against each other, "battles" are inevitable. In the case of the American Express Platinum Card, the fights were particularly brutal. In meeting after heated meeting, opposing sides battled over the name, the price, the look of the card, etc. The champion of each idea openly battled each other. There are some rules though. No one attacks anyone personally. Everyone's friends the minute the battle is over, and absolutely no politics.
In the end, Walsh's idea may not win. His big idea has some formidable foes who think it is simply too soft of a sell. Walsh is far from defeat. He is constantly drumming up support and making subtle changes in the ads themselves. Even if his idea is not selected this time, he will not stop fighting. ”My idea may retire briefly, but it won't die. We'll change it a little here, a little there, and, before you know it, it'll be reincarnated," says Walsh. "You don't win by wimping out." 1