American Express "Take Charge" Campaign Launches with Powerful Full-Page Ads but Weak Online Support

imageEvidently, there is still a disconnect between the print and online advertising groups at major advertisers.

Case in point: American Express kicked off a new campaign (press release) with an impressive full-page ad (p. A9) in Tuesday’s WSJ (see inset) and other print media (note 1). It was a timely ad, playing on money fears and overall security concerns. It concluded with the company’s new tagline:

Don’t Take Chances. Take Charge.

The call-to-action uses a new URL <> that leads to a new microsite (see second screenshot below). Wanting to look at it, I did what I always do, typed “take charge” into Google. Nothing (see first screenshot). I even Binged it. Again, nothing. Searches at Twitter and Facebook also came up empty. Even at American Express’s own website, site-search results do not include the microsite (note 2).

It’s hard to understand why AmEx would spend millions on a new campaign and microsite without Google AdWords support to help people find it, at least until the microsite starts appearing on the first page of search results (note 3).

But after looking at the Take Charge microsite, I can see why the company might not be ready to direct search traffic there. The site is a good example of what NOT to do. The Flash-based site is slow-loading (note 4) and sparsely filled with ten testimonial videos (notes 5, 6), a list of seven benefits for using a charge card, and a couple links out to the main AmEx site.

So far, the microsite looks like a pure branding play. There’s little there that would motivate someone to apply for a card on the spot. But with millions being spent on other media using that URL, it seems like a wasted opportunity, so far. It will be interesting to watch it evolve.

Google search results for “take charge” (9:30 AM Pacific, 1 Sep 2009 from Seattle IP address)


AmEx Take Charge microsite (1 Sep 2009)


1. Here’s the initial media buy according to the company’s press release:

The marketing campaign launches (Sep. 1) with print advertisements in national newspapers, including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and USA Today. On September 2, print advertisements will run in major regional newspapers, including Boston Globe, New York Post, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle and the Chicago Tribune. Television advertising will begin to air on major broadcast and cable stations such as CBS, FOX, NBC, TNT, A&E and the Discovery Channel breaking during the U.S. Open on September 5.

2. The search results do provide relevant links, just not to the microsite.
3. I haven’t tested it on other computers, but AmEx’s site just about brings my 3-year-old Thinkpad to a grinding halt. It’s not a good first impression. The company either needs more server bandwidth or a less demanding page, or preferably both. There should also be a link to a lower-bandwidth version.
4. Currently, the AmEx site does not come up within the first 10 pages. There’s also a remote possibility that Google won’t let AmEx use “take charge” in search ads due to the similar-sounding TakeCharge Financial. But I have to think AmEx lawyers have worked through that issue already. 
5. There are small “apply now” links displayed at the end of each video.
6. Once it loads, the site is visually interesting (see screenshot above).

Are Paper Statements on their Way Out? American Express to Force Up to 7 Million Cardholders into Electronic Statements

image Today’s American Banker tells of AmEx’s plans to force electronic statements on an undisclosed portion of its corporate cardholder base, said to number more than 7 million accounts worldwide (note 1). This is probably a bit of an exaggeration, as it’s more likely that paper statements are being eliminated as a standard account benefit and must be negotiated separately for an additional fee. The company admitted there would be exceptions for those without Internet access or those that still required paper for customer billings.

But it’s still a watershed moment. Today, paper statements are a standard feature of most banking and credit card relationships. In a study last year (note 2), Javelin Research found that only 15% of customers had given up paper statements entirely on their primary credit card.

Currently, the burden falls on the financial institutions to beg, trick, incent, or “green” their customers into giving up paper (see inset above from Texans Credit Union). For example, Citibank frequently uses an interstitial (splash screen) after login that encourages estatements (screenshot below). See our previous posts on those efforts.

The tables are about to turn. With severe profit pressure on most big banks and card issuers, most (all?) will soon adopt the American Express approach and offer electronic statements free of charge, with paper available for an extra charge. This is how checking-account pricing has evolved over the past two decades as banks migrated customers to check truncation as the standard, with paper checks returned for an extra fee (note 3).

Interstitial displayed after logging in to Citibank’s online banking
(9 April 2009, note 4)


1. This decision will impact less than 10% of American Express cardholders, which number 92 million worldwide as of 31 March 2009, up 4% from 88 million cards a year ago.
2. Javelin survey of 2,500 consumer head of households in 2008.
3. For no valid reason any more, checks are still returned on my U.S. Bank “free” small business checking account for a $10 monthly fee.
4. Example from our latest Online Banking Report: Selling Behind the Password.

American Express Adds a Helpful Hint When Typing a Structurally-Wrong Password

image Thank-you, American Express, for removing one of the little annoyances of online commerce. During login, the company warns users when they’ve typed more than the maximum eight characters allowed in the password field. The login page suddenly becomes grayed out and the error message appears on the right (see screenshot below).

It would be interesting to see what this small change saved in reduced password resets and customer service calls.

Bottom line: If you have unique password requirements, such as special characters, consider telling customers during login if their password is invalid for that reason. Sure, it makes it slightly easier for crooks to guess, but mostly you’ll just have a bunch of slightly-less-annoyed customers.

American Express log-in message when attempting to use a password that doesn’t fit the company’s requirements (15 April 2009)


Small Business Networks from American Express, Capital One, Advanta, Bank of America, QuickBooks, and HSBC

Earlier this week, Visa launched its Facebook Business Network. While the first to use Facebook, several other major financial institutions have opened small biz networks on the Web in the past six months:

  • image Advanta’s Ideablob launched last September at DEMOfall (previous post here). It’s a unique website with monthly contests awarding $10,000 to the best idea, as voted on by users. It’s an intriguing concept with decent traction, almost 30,000 unique visitors last month according to Compete (see chart below). (Full disclosure: I just realized I’m wearing an Ideablob t-shirt; schwag can still pay off!)
  • image American Express’s OpenForum: As the name suggests, it’s a business forum and resource directory, not unlike Bank of America’s (see below). American Express has added posts from several prominent bloggers such as John Battelle’s Searchblog and Anita Campbell’s Small Biz Trends to keep the site fresh. The site has 5,400 members and monthly traffic of about 11,000 unique visitors, up threefold from a year ago.  
  • image Bank of America’s Small Business Online Community, a general forum and resource directory, launched in October 2007 (see original post here). It’s primarily a forum, with some additional articles on the side. Total membership is just under 15,000.
  • image Capital One’s Slingshot, launched in February, is primarily a business directory. But it does aim for community involvement with user-submitted business reviews and comments on certain topics.
  • image HSBC’s (UK) Business Network: Another forum-and-blog site similar to AmEx’s OpenForum. So far it appears lightly used, with just six blog entries this year and 270 member profiles.
  • image Intuit’s Quickbooks Group: Although not a financial institution, the Quickbooks site is a good example of an active community with more content, including ten blogs, and as much traffic as the others combined (not including BofA which is unknown) with nearly 90,000 unique visitors, almost double the number a year ago.

 Unique website visitors in May 2008 (source: Compete)


American Express Plum Card Update

As promised in its teaser print buy, American Express delivered my Plum Card invitation in the wee hours Monday morning (2:06 AM Pacific time, see screenshot below). The message, with my first and last name in the salutation, was short and sweet and directed me back to the main website to apply at <>.

It's all first class work, but the generic call-to-action surprised me a bit since I'd put my name on the "wait list" last week (see post here). I expected a more personalized invitation and link. The website doesn't appear to recognize me either (see screenshot below).

Email Invitation (1 Nov 2007)

American Express email invite for Plum Card 

Plum Card homepage (5 Nov. 2007)

American Express Plum Card homepage

American Express Plum Card Uses "Scarcity Marketing"

As a financial services junkie, I've long been a fan of American Express (see note 1). During the past 20 years, as credit cards increasingly became a commodity with no annual fees, loss-leader teaser rates, and look-alike marketing, AmEx has done a superb job maintaining a premium image and pricing. I keep my Gold Card in my travel bag and use it once every year or so when I don't want to expose the numbers of my business MasterCard. But I would never cancel it, despite the $75 annual fee, or I'd lose my "member since 1989" status. That, my friends, is what brand loyalty is all about.

The latest product designed for small businesses, those with "6- or 7-figure revenues," is the Plum Card. I learned about it in a 2/3-page full-color burgundy ad in yesterday's Wall Street Journal (Oct. 31, p. A11). An identical ad appears today (Nov. 1, p. A10). Its standard teaser fare tells readers that the "application releases in 5 days" (today, 4). The bottom of the ad contains a special URL, <> where prospective customers can get more info. The card was originally announced at an INC 5000 event Sep. 7 (see coverage here).

After seeing the print ads, I and another 100,000 people headed to Google to see what was going on. Wisely, the company purchased not only the top spot on Google for "plum card," but also supported the print buy with an additional twist, "Who's getting a Plum Card? Initial release of 10,000 cards." The novelty of a new financial services product with limited availability, a technique AmEx has used for years with Platinum/Black, should attract click-throughs.   

The landing page (here) continues the theme of anticipation and exclusivity, with get this, a WAIT LIST, to be one of the first 10,000 to receive the card. A countdown timer in the upper right lets me know exactly how much time I have to wait, in this case 3 days, 11 hours and 6 minutes. If I'm not mistaken, that's Sunday night at midnight Eastern time.  

I'm on the wait list, so I'll let you know what I learn on Monday when I receive my application.

Plum Card pricing
There's no argument the marketing is first class, but what about the card itself? Is there anything that AmEx or anyone can do to distinguish themselves in the crowded field of business charge cards?

Time will tell, but it has a unique cash flow and discount plan that could be very appealing to business customers. Users that pay their bill within 10 days receive the industry standard "net less 2%" discount (see note 1). Alternatively, users can pay just 10% of the total due and defer the balance for two months interest free. At that time, the balance is due in full. There is no information in the terms and conditions about an annual fee, but I'd expect one.    


  1. If my wife would have been willing to move to NYC, I'd have tried very hard to get a job there after completing my obligatory MBA. 
  2. The 2% discount applies on spending of $5,000 or more; otherwise, the net-10 discount is 1%.

Password Reset Alert from American Express

I received an email from American Express late last night after resetting my password earlier in the day (see screenshot below). I can never remember my AmEx password, because I can't use my usual one due to the company's surprisingly short field of just 8 characters that also doesn't support special characters. I have it written down somewhere, but I can never find that either.

I went online late Friday afternoon to pay my overdue bill at I was pretty sure it was one of three possibilities, but after two unsuccessful attempts, and with the website warning me the third attempt would cause a lockout (note 1), I decided to go through the online reset process instead. 

That was easy. I just needed the card number, the code on the front of the card, and the answer to a security question. At that point, AmEx displayed my username and let me reset the password. It's one of the easier reset processes I've tested. That's a benefit to customers and helps cut customer service costs for AmEx. 

But the thing I liked most was the email message sent later that night informing me of the password reset (screenshot below). But I don't understand why it was sent more than six hours later. Why not send it right away? That would be way more impressive to customers, and would help reduce any potential fraud or privacy violations. Better yet, send a text message right to the customer's mobile, so they have real-time knowledge of the account changes.

Email Critique
Personalization: The company uses two pieces of personalization, cardmember name and the last five digits of the account number, to differentiate this message from the average phish. Excellent.  

Subject line: Your American Express Forgotten User ID is good and right to the point

From: "American Express" using an American Express email address. Good.  

Headline: Verify Your Account Transaction is a little confusing. All I did was reset my password. I'm not sure that average person views that as a "transaction."

Copy: The copy is short and to the point, but it could use a little editing for clarity. The third sentence, "If you did contact us…." seems unnecessary. And "If you did not complete the retrieval…." is not very user friendly language.

Design & Layout: Excellent.

Overall Grade: A- for the message, B- for timeliness


1. We recommend allowing more than three attempts before lockout. It's pretty easy to forget a digit or make a typing mistake. See our Online Banking Report on Security (#119) for more information.  

In 2006, 86% of credit card direct mail included online options

Advertising-monitoring firm, Mintel Comperemedia reported last week that nearly 9 out of 10 credit card solicitations in 2006 directed recipients to the Web, up sharply from 56% in 2003 (see note 1, 2). Several big mailers, namely American Express, still seem reluctant to use website response as an option, at least in the mailers we see at our house.

American Express tests must show a drop in response by offering too many choices. But if you don't have the budget of American Express, which can afford to drop a mail piece in every credit-worthy household every two or three weeks, you should add website options to your direct mail creative. That way, you can at least capture a lead at your website, even if they don't ultimately accept your credit offer. 

Total mailing volume for 2006 was 9.2 billion pieces (see note 1), or about 3 per week per credit-worthy household. Two of those were from the five largest mailers listed below which accounted for more than 60% of the volume, according to Comperemedia. JPMorgan Chase accounted for 18% on its own. 

In another data slice from Comperemedia, cited by Capital One in a Feb. 2006 investor presentation (PDF here), response rates have fallen from 1.4% in 1995 to 0.3% in 2004 (see note 3).

Here's a breakdown of the billion-piece club, and their percent change compared to 2005:  

1. Chase >>> 1.7 billion (down 4%)

2. Capital One >>> 1.2 billion (up 13%)

3. American Express >>> 1 billion

4. Citibank >>> 980 million (down 2%)

5. Bank of America/MBNA >>> 920 million (down 17%)

Other top-10 mailers: HSBC (up 25%); Discover (up 29%); Barclays Bank (190 million, up 70%)


1. Comperemedia tracks mailing volume for more than 150 large financial institutions. So the figures here do not include mailings from thousands of smaller banks and credit unions. In total, those probably account for less than 5% of the total from the top-150. 

2. Comperemedia press release is here. Interview of Comperemedia director Jenny Roock by MediaPost is here.

3. Credit card response rate slide from Capital One's investor presentation (PDF) at the Debt & Equity Conference, Feb. 2006; data from Comperemedia.

Credit card industry response rates from American Express

Amex_mylifemycard_logo If you watched any U.S. Open tennis over the holiday weekend, you couldn't miss the American Express tie-ins. My favorite commercial showed Andy Roddick exchanging ground strokes with a white bar designed to look like the early video game, Pong. It has nostalgic appeal to younger baby boomers who played the orginal Atari game in the late 1970s, and it was funny enough to get the attention of younger consumers.

The commercial ended with a tie-in to a special website, <>, where the game can be played online. It's much like the original, not surprising given the site was built by Atari Interactive. With the mouse, the user operates Roddick who bats the ball back to the white bar. Like the original, the game speeds up the longer the ball stays in play. In a modern twist, you can choose either 3-D or 2-D version. The top 100 scores are listed to help stoke the competitive spirit.


Overall, it's a good campaign with engaging broadcast advertising driving customers to a good website with viral hooks. We do have a few suggestions:

  1. Add Google support: The first step for the majority of Internet users will be to enter "stop pong" or something similar into Google. Luckily, the Stop Pong microsite is in first position in the organic results, so it's relatively easy to find. However, numerous first-page blog-listings could snag the traffic before they ever get to the genuine site. American Express should support the expensive campaign with a relatively inexpensive Google AdWords buy on the relevant terms, "American Express Roddick," "American Express pong," "stop pong" and so on.  On a 10-point scale, the company is docked half a point for this.
  2. Personalize it: There should be some way for users to add their name to be shown on the screen during play. Even more important, it should track each user's high score during the session.
  3. Grab leads: In addition to personalization, users should have the option of saving their high score(s) by registering with a username, password, and valid email address. Give registrants the ability to opt-in for future marketing messages.
  4. Make it viral: Offering the HTML code in the lower left is a good viral marketing move. An even better one, because anyone can do it, is to provide an email-your-friend option. Even better: allow friends to email their scores to others as a challenge.
  5. Offer player rewards: Another way to increase word-of-mouth is to offer prizes, not for scoring high, which might run afoul of gaming regulations, but at random simply for playing the game. 
  6. Allow the sound to be turned off (on screen): Obviously the designers have never worked in a "real office" where the sound of a pong game coming out of your cubicle is not exactly what the boss had in mind when he/she asked you to "serve up some ideas for the next project meeting." Whenever you add audio to your website, make sure you have a visible on-screen mute button.
  7. Support the campaign on landing pages: Neither of the landing pages accessible through the microsite are customized for the Pong campaign. However, the main "My Life. My Card" page <>  (see screenshot by clicking "continue" below), reached by clicking on the banner in the upper left, includes "play pong" superimposed on a small picture of Roddick. But the main clickthrough spot, the banner in the lower right, leads to the regular "My Life. My Card" selector tool with no mention of Pong, tennis, or the U.S. Open.

Overall Grade
Even though we think American Express could do a better job capturing leads, it's probably better to err on the side of a too-soft sell instead of too-hard, especially if the goal is to have the online game grow virally thorough blog and other media mentions.   

We'll give it an A for creative and B+ for execution.


Here's the main "My Life. My Card" site reached by clicking on the logo in the upper left of the Stop Pong site:


Here's the card selector reached from the banner in the lower right of the Stop Pong page:


Juniper Bank, UBS Wealth Management Create a Clever Marketing Tool

UBS Wealth Management US last week launched a new payments-card package for its brokerage customers that among other things cleverly turns an ordinary American Express card into what amounts to a debit card. The program was created for UBS by Barclay’s PLC’s Juniper Bank unit.

The whole idea is to bind its customers to the U.S. brokerage unit of Zurich-based UBS by giving them a payments-card package that the firm hopes will be their primary spending vehicle, says Peter Stanton, executive director of the UBS unit’s Banking Strategy Group. It’s not an effort to enter the very tight U.S. credit card business

“It’s definitely not our intention to be another credit card provider,” he says. “This is a consolidation strategy; it’s all connected to our role as their primary wealth-management advisor, and ties them closer to us because of the services we provide.”

On the surface, the package is an ordinary Visa credit card and an ordinary American Express charge card, bundled with a very extravagant rewards program that offers cardholders enticements like jet fighter rides or a sleepover at FAO Schwartz. Rewards run from one point to 1.5 points per dollar spent, depending on whether the customer chooses the basic “Select” Visa card or one of the more elite Visa cards that carry annual membership fees of up to $1,500. UBS says it has about 15,000 such accounts.

By offering its brokerage customers such payment packages, UBS joins a widening club of brokerage companies trying to retain customers whose loyalty is mercurial at best. “With acquisition costs so high, and turnover very high also, the emphasis has been to keep the customers they already paid for, happy,” says Ariana-Michele Moore, a senior analyst with Celent Communications.

The Amex card allowed UBS and Juniper to create a vehicle that functions like a debit card from the user’s perspective—UBS calls the card a “delayed debit card,” though Amex insists that the cards are ordinary Amex cards—while earning the issuer the much higher American Express interchange fees.

It does this by an interesting sleight of hand that seems to be built around the fact that none of the parties to the deal care what the card is called, as long as they get what they want from it. Cardholders use the Amex card like an ordinary debit card, including being able to use it to withdraw surcharge-free cash at ATMs that accept Amex cards. At the end of the month, their central brokerage account, or RMA (resource management account), is automatically debited, and no bill is sent to the customer. Purchases are limited to the funds available.

This way, UBS gets what amounts to a debit card for its customers, while Amex and Juniper get full price for an Amex card. And as an added bonus, Juniper gets a piece of the debit card market, which is quickly overtaking credit cards as the payment vehicle of choice in the United States.

How the parties came up with this deal is unknown. UBS’ Stanton says his shop approached Juniper around August of 2004 as part of a typical RFP process, and went to contract last April. Juniper refused any comment on the matter, referring all questions to UBS.

“It has in-between functionality,” says Stanton. “It functions as a debit in the sense that it accesses your available funds; it functions as a charge card because the charges accrue, and instead of having to make some sort of payment, the payment is automatic.” The idea, he adds, was to allow purchases to be made without interfering with a client’s trading accounts.

All in all, it’s a smart deal, says Celent's Moore—among other things, because people with brokerage accounts are typically wealthier, and travel overseas, so that the package gives UBS clients a secure spending vehicle.

“It’s all about providing flexibility to their brokerage customers, but it could also be enticement for people considering opening a UBS account—it could be the thing that tips the scale,” she says. (Contact: UBS Wealth Management US, 212-882-5698; Celent Communications, Ariana-Michele Moore, 503-617-6112)