Monday, September 17, 2007

U.S. (of American Express) Open

By now, you've all heard the phrase Branded Utility. To recap, it refers to brands creating something that is useful to their customers. It's not only a response to the spam that is most advertising, but also a way to take advantage of the tools provided us by new technologies, specifically web 2.0. Most of all, it is the challenge and vision to make things that people really want and need; that have real value to them.

We've seen more examples of this type of branded utility lately, with Charmin's Times Square toilets to Nike+(iPod). These types of branded utilities pull in customers, rather than push a message out to them. It makes a deeper connection with them or becomes more integrated in/important to their lives. So if that is the goal, then the strategy is to understand people better and discover meaningful ways in which they can contribute to their lives. Arguably this should be easier for the customers a brand already has, but sometimes these are the people that feel ignored as brand look to get more awareness, more trial, and more acquisition.

However, over the course of the two-week U.S. Open, I saw and took part in a brand executing on the idea of branded utility to near perfection. That brand was American Express. Amex has long been a sponsor of the U.S. and long had an obvious presence on the grounds; yet, these past couple of years they have leveraged a major sponsorship in a bar-setting way. Instead of being happy with logos galore and a couple of booths, they have extended this through truely valuable brand experiences...and they have made both their customers feel valued and provided utility to all tennis fans.

This year, they offered branded utility in two main places: Flushing Meadows (the tournament site) and Madison Square Park and Rockafeller Center (in Manhattan).On the Open grounds, two things (utilities) really stood out: Radios at the Open with commenting by John McEnroe and TVs for other courts for cardholders. Additionally, cardholders got access to advance ticket sales (a utility for cardholders) and the U.S. Open club for eating better food with less of a wait.

In Madison Square Park, the main attraction was their live screening of the tournament on a big screens, where on those beautiful days (which lucky for the Open organizers, all of them were) people gathered to watch together. They had big tourney drawsheets up as well. Additionally, however, they offered all park-goers the opportunity to get an on-site Serve Analysis from a tennis pro as well as the video tape sent with more comments. Sure the comments are the same for everyone through email, but you get and have the video forever.

So you can tell I'm a fan of how Amex made being useful a priority. My only question is: Did all this utility come at the cost of entertainment? Of course, they had an amazing on-site presence for the over 650,000 attendees (it is the most attended annual sporting event in the world). But should Amex have spent a little more money trying not to annoy the around 100 million people who tuned in (many for most days and nights) with the same Johnny Mac commercial at every break for two whole weeks of matches? (By the way, is dispute resolution the most important message for Amex to get out these days? And if so, wouldn't have sponsoring the ball cam and challenges been more appropriate? They couldn't have outbid chase, who now has a 5-year deal on the review cam?)

Either way, I applaud Amex - tennis clap...and it seems to be applying this same customer understanding to other areas of business. Recently I read on Zeus Jones that Amex's iPhone price protection covers the recent drop in price.

If anyone has other example of Amex's branded utility at the U.S. Open or otherwise, or of the exact opposition behavior or policies at Amex, please comment below. (Sorry for all the or's. Oops I did it again.)

No comments: