Gaining credibility is critical for small-business success. Potential clients and business partners have to believe the firm's seriousness, expertise and longevity. The shoe-string, garage operation might sound romantic, but it doesn't easily instill confidence. One easy way to convey that credibility, however, is to use the American Express OPEN Gold card, according to Amex, whose new ad campaign makes this point by poking fun at the fad of customizing credit cards-and in ways that might not seem all that professional.

One print advertisement, for instance, shows a customized card with three kittens on it with "I OWN KITTENS" printed above. Next to that card is the AmEx Gold card, and "I OWN MY BUSINESS" printed above. Yet another print ad has a card with the video game Asteroids depicted on it and "I OWN THE HIGH SCORE" printed above, with the Gold card next to it.

The new ad campaign began in June and will run on television, online, through direct mail and heavily in trade publications for an undisclosed amount, says Marcella Shinder, head of brand marketing and strategy for OPEN. While the commercial might seem to take a swipe at customizable cards, Shinder says, "It's not taking a shot at anything. It's meant to just demonstrate that the card you carry says something to the person on the other side of the counter. If you are using a personal card, there is no way for the person on the other side of the counter to know that you are a business owner and give you the treatment that you deserve."

In a widely run television commercial produced by Boulder, CO, ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky, two small business owners-Evan Brown of Brown Fabrics and Kishani Perera, who's a real customer, of fuse I.D. Interior Design-are working on a sales pitch to three German clients at a lunch inside a high-end restaurant.

When the check comes everyone reaches for their wallets, but Evan says, "Please, I'll get this." The 30-something male grabs his Velcro wallet from his pocket, tears it open and pulls out a personalized credit card from [fictional] Tri-Vista Bank. The card has a picture of a comic book character, one that resembles DC Comics's "The Flash", and places it over the bill in the center of the table.

The Germans stare at the card, appearing nonplussed. The female German says in her native tongue, "What's this card?" One of her male companions says-again, in German-with a smirk, "It's a kindergarten card." The Germans start laughing to themselves as Evan nervously laughs along with them-not quite getting the fact that the jokes on him.

After the Germans leave, Evan, still not understanding what just went down, says, "I think that went well, huh?" to Kishani. She shrugs, says "Yeah," and then adds: "Let me get this, OK?" Kishani then puts her AmEx OPEN Gold card over the personalized card. Her name, company, and year she joined (2004) appear in the left hand corner of the screen.

At the conclusion of the commercial a female voiceover says, "If you own your business, own the card that says so." The frame then switches to a cluttered business desk and the voiceover adds: "The Gold Card, with rewards to reinvest in your business. Earn more bonus points as your spending increases. And now up to 25,000 points, good for a domestic airline ticket. To apply, visit open.com/freeticket or call 1-800-NOW-OPEN. American Express OPEN-calling all business owners."

"I think this new campaign illustrates an understanding of the small-business community's desire to establish credibility for their businesses and to be taken seriously," says Christine Barry, a research director at Aite Group. "Image and the way a small-business owner presents him or herself is very important. Representatives of large corporations do not walk around with corporate cards with pictures of their favorite animals on them and neither should a small-business owner." (c) 2008 U.S. Banker and SourceMedia, Inc. All Rights Reserved. http://www.americanbanker.com/usb.html/ http://www.sourcemedia.com/

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