Fireside Chat with American Express and Google

As a new generation of consumers demands elevated brand experiences, marketers are challenged with meeting their expectations. To stay in the lead, brands need to accomplish more than ever in the moments they engage with their customers — making those experiences personalized, helpful, and meaningful at every touchpoint.

“Simple, frictionless, real-time feedback at their fingertips: that’s something that is basic to the benchmarks of what Millennials expect a company to do for them,” says Howard Grosfield, Executive Vice President of U.S. Consumer Marketing Services at American Express. “That is a fundamentally different bar that has changed the way we deliver our experiences.”

American Express joins Google for a fireside chat, organized by FCS New York

Howard and his team at American Express (Amex) are keenly aware of how the market is evolving. That’s why he joined Steve Arthur, Industry Director of Finance at Google, at the New York Yacht Club on December 17th to discuss how Amex is creating valuable experiences for its customers, making their lives easier every time finances come into play.

Digital natives have been “exposed to a different set of services and experiences that are enabled largely by technology that literally has been by their side since birth,” explains Howard. “That changes expectations for any company, not to mention one dating back to 1850 like Amex.”

Where some brands might see an overwhelming challenge, American Express sees an opportunity. As Howard shared, to continue to grow its business, Amex has set its primary focus on positioning exceptional experiences for its members first.

Amex finds opportunities to support the unique financial moments of its members

“We don’t strive to be the world’s biggest bank, or even the biggest credit card provider,” explains Howard. “We’ve aspired for several decades to be the world’s most respected service brand… to provide the world’s best customer experience, every day. And that has unshackled us, allowing our team to really think about what matters to our customers, rather than the products themselves.”

This strategy has set the company on a journey — not only to improve its products and services, but to discover more about what matters to a new generation of customers.

Fortunately, the company’s deep knowledge of its members “has always been at the core of its marketing,” says Howard, which helps American Express deliver exceptional experiences. Marketers apply these insights using predictive analytics to make informed decisions about how to reach members and prospective customers effectively.

For years, American Express has leveraged the power of machine learning to simplify the customer experience. Machine learning powers Amex’s fraud protection, which takes only milliseconds to confirm the identity of a diner paying for a meal and ensure that someone hasn’t been impacted by fraud. Now, a new opportunity lies in using the power of machine learning to transform the marketing experience.

“Machine learning is going to help us as marketers build off of the predictive analytics and actually start to test and learn in real time,” says Howard.” We can start to think about optimizing not only the right marketing to the right individual at the right time, but figuring out the right message in the context of what each individual is doing at that moment.” It’s through these efforts that Amex is successfully reaching a new generation of customers.

Three strategies enable Amex to lead the industry on next-generation experiences

Adapting to meet the changing needs of consumers remains central to Amex’s brand strategy, and it’s central to the commitment Amex makes to its members. But Howard and his team acknowledge that to expand Amex’s customer base and introduce new successful products, marketers need to continue to  simplify and optimize how they engage existing and future Amex members. Howard highlights three strategies for leading the industry in these areas.

  • Think ahead of consumer expectations. Amex continues to hold a finger to the pulse of data that has driven them as a direct-to-consumer company. Today, Amex is evolving to make personal financial moments in consumers’ lives more effortless and seamless, no matter how they engage with the brand.

For example, Amex’s acquisitions of Resy, a reservation-booking app, and Cake, a mobile restaurant payment and loyalty app, make it easier for customers to plan and enjoy their everyday dining experiences. Partnerships with Venmo and PayPal help members share payments with merchants and friends.

  • Double down on making trust and consumer privacy paramount. Consumer trust, privacy, and security have been priorities at Amex for years. “Trust is something that, even well before the privacy issues or questions that we think about purely through the context of digital marketing, has always been core to [American Express],” explains Howard. “We are trusted as brands to take care of probably some of the most intimate data that consumers have.”

The company’s new Center of Excellence reaffirms this commitment, as it remains solely focused on staying ahead of new questions and needs regarding safe data management. This team is developing a depth of expertise that will guide and advise the rest of the company, “ensuring we remain visionary versus reactive on these issues,” says Howard. In an industry that has been “put on the spotlight in terms of how we enable consent… brands that have figured out how to deepen trust with customers are the ones that are going to be able to create a compelling advantage,” he explains. 

  • Acknowledge that consumer ecosystems are evolving to prioritize one-to-one experiences. Against the backdrop of changing consumer and business expectations are challenges to how marketers access and act upon insights from customer behavior. “Measurement is the great challenge that all of us are waking up to, trying to figure out how to solve,” says Howard. “Measurement is imperfect… When we throw in walled gardens, devices, [and] a multitude of online and offline channels, it creates a big challenge.”

As third-party data becomes less and less accessible, marketers across industries must reevaluate how they understand customers and provide the one-to-one experiences they have come to expect. American Express is embracing a people-based marketing approach that will reprioritize first-party customer insights as their primary tool for personalizing member experiences.

“As we lean into people-based systems, and we figure out how to link it on the advertising and publishing side, we're going to enter a new era to be able to do all sorts of extraordinary things,” Howard explains.

Evolving with Customers to Meet Their Future Financial Needs

Now, Millennial consumers represent roughly 60% of Amex’s new acquisitions for premium offerings. As Howard observes, consumer economics have changed little over the years: “When millennials get married, buy a house, and suddenly have financial needs, they are similar to the generations that have come before them.” But the way consumers expect companies like Amex to deliver on those needs is fundamentally different, and continues to evolve. “I think that the speed of change that we're about to undergo in the next couple of years is going to be quite incredible,” says Howard.