Amex's big promise for small business; can they deliver and shift the brand’s perception?

Retail brand agency

American Express has long had to battle its image as being elitist and not retailer friendly, especially for small businesses. Now they are trying to change this perception by starting a movement and becoming the ambassador for local business with their campaign ‘Think big, shop small”.

This is a powerful promotion that could shift the brand’s reputation but it could also be just a massive over promise that they simply can’t deliver on.

Amex has never been a friend of small business. They charge an extra 1% (along with Diners) to Visa and MasterCard. If you listen to many retailers, this is 1% too much. This has meant many retailers, especially the smaller ones, either charge their customers a surcharge to use Amex or simply don’t accept it at all.

The result is that the brand is seen as elitist and only for premium products and services. Often, if they accept it, you pay extra for that privilege.

That’s why I was intrigued to see whether ‘Think big, shop small’ actually has any substance to it. Or, is this just another brand that is making a big promise that it can’t deliver on.

The idea is solid. Change the brand perception of Amex by starting a movement to get people to shop locally. This is supported by a large multi-media investment with advertising and a website to encourage people to shop locally. Retailers are encouraged to register so Amex customers can find new local businesses. Customers are encouraged to search and connect with their local retailers and are rewarded when they spend $20 or more.

According to Amex they are committed to supporting small businesses. The Amex ads say “this November, we’re launching ‘Shop Small’; a month-long campaign designed to drive more customers into small businesses, and to encourage all Australians to support their local communities.”

Without searching the site, I tried in vain to use my Amex down my local high street. Most frowned and told me they don’t accept Amex. A few scorned that they would have to charge me 2.5% and most were much happier if I used Visa. I felt embarrassed to even ask if they accepted Amex after I had tried five stores. The campaign didn’t appear to be working.

Then I tried using the site to search for retailers in my area. After selecting some local retailers, I successfully managed to use my Amex but virtually none seemed to be promoting the campaign. After searching up and down the street, I finally found a local florist who had displayed the ‘Shop local’ sticker in their window.

While the site does encourage people to discover local businesses, the issue of ‘acceptance’ is still a problem. The fact that consumers have to search to see what store will accept Amex before shopping reinforces the elitist and restrictive nature of the brand.

The campaign is focussed on November and has the potential to build and redefine the brand’s reputation over time. However, one retailer told me it might’ve have been better to concentrate the activity over one weekend rather than a month (like they’ve done overseas) as it creates more urgency.

Local shopping small business

However, with glum forecasts once again for flat retail sales this year, retailers are desperate for any help. The fact that Amex is trying to do something will perhaps go a long way in building positive relations with retailers, regardless of whether it translates to extra sales.

I’d love to hear you feedback as consumer or a retailer. What do you think of this campaign and what has been your experience?

Michael Hughes
Managing Partner, Strategy

1 Comment

  1. Can’t deliver. I was going to really get behind shop small this year. Did the work to register and plan. At the end of registration my Amex account would not approve. In the end I find out that even though I accept Amex transactions everyday that I cannot participate with the map etc. Because of the deal my processing company has with Amex.. Not sure at this point that Amex really wants to support their retailers or just look like the care.

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