In a survey American Express OPEN conducted this spring, 21 percent of small-business owners described their firms as "sinking ships" and 58 percent as "staying afloat."In other words, far from booming.
But the creative spark for its new advertising campaign comes from the remaining 21 percent, who said they are unhurt by the sputtering economy or growing in spite of it. With the tag line "Start Booming," the decidedly upbeat ads aim to buck up small-business owners, in part by sharing real stories about how ingenuity is helping some thrive.
"Even in the business climate today, we were so inspired by business owners we talked to who are optimistic, innovating and changing to run their businesses better in a variety of ways," says Julie Fajgenbaum, vice president of brand and customer marketing for OPEN, Amex's small-business division.
The first phase of the campaign kicked off in July with a television spot called "Reveille." The song by the same name-used in the military to wake up the troops-accompanies quick scenes from all types of businesses: The machines at a factory get switched on for the day, a small shop works on designing and building a motorcycle, and farm workers tend plants in a field.
"Reviving the economy means reinventing the way we do business," a male voiceover says. "Here's to the owners who've shown us the way."
The lively trumpet music and artistic film footage combine for a powerful emotional effect. As the tag line flashes on screen at the end, even a sinking business owner might feel like booming is entirely possible, and Fajgenbaum says that is exactly the intent. "The 'Reveille' story is really a rallying cry," she says.
As the second and third phase got underway in August, the campaign, created by Crispin Porter + Bogusky, began layering in ads highlighting actual Amex customers. The print, radio and online components give more detailed stories of how the customers are benefiting from several business tools that OPEN recently introduced. The tools facilitate billing customers, making overseas payments, finding insurance and managing marketing campaigns.
Robert Passikoff, founder and president of the consulting firm Brand Keys, says the initial television spot is effective at piquing interest and making viewers feel uplifted. "That's what you want. You want people walking away feeling, 'We can do it, and I can do it even better if I have an American Express OPEN small-business card.'"
But the challenge will be for the subsequent ads to demonstrate that the benefits of using Amex are greater than those competitors might offer, Passikoff says. "I have a business, so I pay attention to these kinds of things, and what I'm looking for is, 'Where's the benefit for me?' That's ultimately the question."
Fajgenbaum says she expects the new tools to be enticing precisely because of what a help they can be.
For $20 a month, plus transaction fees, one tool called AcceptPay enables taking payments online. This remedies what OPEN's research has shown to be one of small business owners' biggest problems: not getting paid for work fast enough.
Another tool, SearchManager, tracks keyword ad campaigns across several search engines for a fee of $49 a month or 5 percent of a business' total ad spend, whichever is greater.
Finding businesses to showcase in the campaign ought to be easy, Fajgenbaum says. A link on openforum.com, OPEN's online business community that gets more than 664,000 unique visitors a month, encourages people to submit their success stories. Short videos on the website also feature customers explaining how they use a particular OPEN tool. They're meant to act as how-to guides.
These practical elements complement the broader creative approach of the campaign, with its emphasis on innovation. And, as Passikoff says, clearly delineating benefits is essential in today's cluttered market. "Innovation is nice, but making your payroll is better."