Naysla Edwards, Vice President Brand, Charge Cards & Member Experience for American Express, Australia and New Zealand, speaks to WARC’s Gabey Goh for the Marketer’s Toolkit 2022 about how the company has weathered the pandemic and how it is preparing for the opening up of Australia and the world.  

Toolkit 2022

This interview is part of WARC's Marketer's Toolkit 2022. Read more.

Key insights:

  • It is essential that as marketers sell products or experiences, they are mindful of how they connect their brand with communities and how their messaging drives a greater good.
  • A digital experience must always be looked at through the full lens, the full totality of the customer journey, and marketers must ensure it is linked to the entire customer experience.
  • Marketers are responsible for making sure people looking at their advertisements or marketing overall feel that marketers have thought of them and that they have been included.
How are you adjusting to a start/stop economy, with the constant threat of rolling lockdowns and continued restrictions on travel? How has your marketing strategy shifted to account for this volatility?

It has been a year of many changes. The world has changed completely and we started to see that shift at the beginning of 2020. At American Express, this simply reiterated for us the importance of focusing on the customer as a priority. Our acquisition channels became increasingly organic and acquiring new customers became secondary to ensuring we nurtured our current ones to the best of our ability.

We quickly realised that the value of a lot of our products was embedded in travel benefits, and at that time, and still today, the ability to travel has been limited. We therefore needed to pivot our value propositions to meet our customers’ needs where they were and that was increasingly at home.

I was incredibly proud of the team for swiftly adapting our value propositions to offer home-based Card Member benefits – from video streaming, through to grocery offers and online fitness benefits. We also delivered dining and retail programs but through the new lens of e-commerce, which allowed us to continue to offer support when it mattered most.

We also continued to spend a lot of time listening to our customers to learn what was important. Three key areas stood out. First was ensuring their health and safety, and that whatever service or product we provided was done within a COVID-safe environment. Subsequently, we had to pivot a lot of our in-person experiences to offer a virtual alternative.

The second was customer concern about their financial situation. As a payments organisation, we made sure we supported our customers through financial hardship and let them know we had their backs.

The third area of focus was customer privacy, specifically how data was being utilised. I would say this is one of the areas that we have spent the most time on. From a marketing lens, it has been about the personalisation of communications for our customers. This has meant showing them that we're using their data in the right way and always protecting their interests but most importantly, that we are providing the right message at the right time to the right person to make it meaningful.

Naysla Edwards, Vice President Brand, Charge Cards & Member Experience, American Express

Are you seeing any evidence that COVID has changed customer perceptions or sensitivities around advertising and have you had to change your communication tone and style in some way to cater to that?

I firmly believe that the COVID crisis has dialled up the importance of marketing with compassion and empathy. While it’s essential that as marketers we sell products or experiences, we absolutely need to ensure that we are mindful of how we connect our brand with communities and how our messaging drives a greater good.

At Amex, I don't think the tone of our communications has changed. What has changed is our utmost focus on making sure we demonstrate how American Express connects with communities and how we support them in their time of need. Then, we close the loop by seeking opportunities which allow our customers to support these communities and make a difference.

An example is our annual Shop Small campaign which we have run since 2013. Traditionally held in November, the intent of Shop Small is to promote small businesses to our card members, who we incentivise to spend through a dedicated cash or points offer.

What we realised through COVID was that we needed to do this in a very different way. So instead of running a month-long campaign, we decided that Shop Small would run for the full year. This was so important because we had the power, through our marketing, not just to drive customers to support small businesses during a single month, we had the power to tell customers, “you can help make a difference to small businesses during their time of need”.

What have been the key lessons learnt in the scaling up of the Shop Small initiative?

Some of the learnings have been on our greater ability to engage with our card members. This time round when we ran Shop Small, we weren’t constricted by a fixed tight timeline. Sometimes even though we do a big through-the-line campaign, by the time consumers realise it, they don’t have the chance to really explore all of the different businesses out there, so it’s not as impactful as it could be.

We realised that if you give more time to customers to really learn about the campaign and familiarise themselves with it, it provides far greater opportunities for both the customer and small business to see the benefit. 

Extending the duration of the campaign also gave our new Card Members the opportunity to learn about Shop Small and to enjoy the benefits of supporting small businesses.

The other lesson worth mentioning relates to our purchase placements at participating businesses. For a one-month-long campaign, it took us six months to prepare for it. When we did a campaign for 12 months, it took us two months to be ready to launch as speed was needed through these times. We realised that we had much more time to do everything we needed to do. So rather than trying to start so early in order to secure all these placements, we had enough time to visit businesses and spend more time explaining to them what Shop Small is all about, and what it does for them.

With the rise of online shopping, how has the company’s approach and investment in its digital brand experience evolved over the last two years?

At the outset, a digital experience must always be looked at through the full lens and the full totality of the customer journey. As marketers, sometimes we can make the mistake of looking at our digital journey in relation to a single campaign, but you can't do that. You must ensure that you link it through the entire customer experience. That starts from the moment a card member connects with your brand, through to fulfilment and ensuring that if they want to give you feedback or connect with you that they can do that through a single digital ecosystem.

We're all going through this process as brands, and it’s not perfect, but as a marketer, if you think end-to-end, the chances of you getting good, rather than bad, are much higher. You will improve your chances of success.

From an Amex perspective, that digital experience from a servicing perspective has always been at the core. We are well known for providing outstanding service and in fact that's our mission – to provide the best customer experience every day. So through COVID, what we accelerated was that digital connection with our customers, making sure it was seamless and removing any type of friction.

One of the platforms that we managed to evolve from a marketing perspective is our Amex Offers platform, which is embedded within the Amex app. Here, our customers can discover several benefits and offers that, based on an algorithm, are tailored according to their purchase behaviour. 

Within this ecosystem we deploy all our domestic travel strategy offers. We launched several benefits for when people were traveling across lodging, car rental and airlines. For people when they were at home, we delivered several offers in relation to dining and retail benefits so that when people were just doing the shopping at the supermarket, they could easily discover great benefits. It was important that that our customers had a single point of reference to find everything.

From a digital payment perspective, we’ve worked hard to ensure that using your Amex card is simpler. This has seen us integrate with more digital wallets – Apple, Android and Google Wallet. 

The other thing we saw with everyone using digital wallets was engagement growth with our app and contactless tools, which is great because this meant we could continue to deploy marketing initiatives through digital channels because we knew our customers were much more accustomed to interacting with us digitally.

What are the key metrics you use to judge your campaign effectiveness against?

There is always going to be some traditional metrics that we continue to focus on as marketers. We look at campaign effectiveness and KPIs through two lenses. The first is from the viewpoint of our current customers. The second is from the standpoint of our prospective customers. They're both different and yet equally important.

From a current member perspective, when we run campaigns, we look closely at engagement rates. They are incredibly important. The higher your engagement, the higher the impact of your campaign and that informs whether you should do more of the same or not.

The second metric is return on investment (ROI) and I know all marketers talk about this. It is super important though for both our finance and executive teams and we are increasingly focused on measuring this metric across all campaigns and spending enough time to measure downstream.

Another important metric is our Net Promoter Score (NPS), where we measure customer satisfaction on a regular basis.

We also look at the customer lifetime value as it's incredibly important to ensure that in lifecycle management, you truly consider how you can improve the lifetime value of every customer you have.

And finally, retention rates, where we have really focused our efforts to look after our customers so they stayed with us. I’m pleased to say we have seen the lowest attrition rates in our business, through COVID, which is just a sensational KPI to see improvement.

From a prospective customer perspective, again ROI is very important and that is aligned with the cost per acquisition, making sure it is sustainable and that ultimately you have a positive ROI.

We also look at activation rates and the engagement rate with benefits, especially in the early tenure phase, to make sure that in those first three months of that customer’s life with Amex, they are engaging with the right benefits and are aware of everything that is available to them. If they engage early, then we know this is going to be a customer for life so that early engagement metric is super critical.

The last is brand consideration. We have a brand health tracker that we run on a quarterly basis that gives us our brand consideration metrics.

Could you share more about what Amex is doing within the diversity and inclusion space?

At American Express, we have an incredibly robust diversity and inclusion strategy.

We established our diversity and inclusion council in 2020, which is led by our local managing director Corrina Davison and under that, we have a number of initiatives.

I lead the Diversity and Inclusion in Communications workstream and strongly believe that as a marketer, I have the responsibility to make sure that through our communications, we realise that we have the power to influence a much more positive, diverse and inclusive Australia. Our country has the most beautiful and multicultural communities and as marketers, we have the responsibility to ensure that people who are looking at our advertisements or marketing overall feel that we have thought of them and that they have been included.

Sustainability is another key pillar of our diversity and inclusion strategy and what we have done is focus on key areas that are very dear to us. We launched our Reconciliation Action Plan last year, which is the support that our organisation gives to indigenous communities in Australia and is embedded in what we do.

It is a journey and we don't know it all. But what we have done is start to work with indigenous communities in Australia, to make sure we understand how we can support them. What a Reconciliation Action Plan means for Amex and how we translate that into the local community has been a great area of focus for us.

In September, we launched the inaugural First Nations Business Growth Program, supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander business leaders, in partnership with Rare Birds. The program will see 20 Supply Nation Certified businesses receive backing from us and our partner in the form of mentorship, masterclasses and virtual networking events.

Another initiative we’ve just launched is our three-year principal partnership with the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. We will also be partnering with Sydney WorldPride in 2023. At Amex, we value and embrace differences and believe unique perspectives, backgrounds and experiences are critical to the diversity of communities and the success of businesses, so this partnership is a great fit.

What about Amex’s priorities when it comes to environmental sustainability?

Sustainability is one of the core pillars of our ESG strategy and our global CEO Steve Squeri recently outlined our commitment in detail. We are committed to net-zero carbon emissions by 2035, 15 years ahead of the Paris Agreement’s 2050 goal.

To achieve this, we plan to provide at least US$10 million by the end of 2025 toward initiatives, partnerships and programs that prevent and address the adverse effects of climate change. We are also setting goals to enhance the management of climate-related risks and opportunities across our business, pilot low-carbon product innovations, including solutions to track and offset emissions by 2022, and identify opportunities to engage our global colleague base in sustainability initiatives and volunteer opportunities.

What is your outlook for the year ahead and what will be your key areas of focus?

We are so excited about the year ahead. We're looking forward to Australia opening up and our customers being able to explore the country and see the world again but also welcoming travellers from around the world.

At Amex, we are ready to start backing customers when they begin travelling both domestically and internationally. We hope that people continue to visit their backyard but we know that everyone is very excited to travel internationally, so we have several travel benefits that we'll be reactivating which we were forced to close, like our airport lounges.

We will continue to support businesses, especially in sectors that have been hardest hit by the pandemic.

Our card members are telling us that they are looking forward to living in normality again. They can’t wait to go to live music events, dine out and not do all their shopping online. But what we realised and this is key for any marketer, is that we need to make sure we are fully adapted to a hybrid life.

The speed of e-commerce and digitalisation is not going to stop, it is going to continue. So we have to retain a really robust digital strategy but we also have to make sure that we continue to help connect humanity. It is the face-to-face interactions that create that power of happiness and feelings of connectedness.

Lastly, as I think of 2022, is how we're going to continue to drive marketing through the DEI lens.

We did an audit at the end of 2020 of all our assets and we realised there was greater opportunity to showcase our communities in a much stronger way.

We must make sure we continue to nurture our marketing teams. There are a lot of young marketers on the path to growing their careers and they need to continue to strengthen both their hard and soft skills. And when you ask me which soft skills marketers really need to unpack, it’s critical thinking, challenging the status quo, imagination, having judgment and thinking “big” and “small” when it comes to innovation.

People think innovation and ideas must be big to be meaningful. I think it's okay to have small ideas and do more with them and faster. And most importantly, humanity. This should be at the core of everything we do.