Under the hood of Amex’s success with small businesses

There’s nothing small about Amex’s work with small businesses. In a recent interview, we sat down with Amex’s Clayton F Ruebensaal to discuss the enduring prosperity of Small Business Saturday, the impact of the pandemic on small businesses and what’s on Amex’s horizon. Lucy Gillman investigates.

As EVP, global B2B marketing, Clayton’s remit extends from the cards Amex sells to the smallest startups in the world through to programmes to some of the largest global organisations. Clayton heads up a team of hundreds of marketers - “a team that I feel very humbled to run,” he adds.

Running for over a decade in the US and just under in the UK - not to mention with a glowing Presidential endorsement - Small Business Saturday has transformed the way we view small businesses, with a tangible, financial impact on organisations. But what does it take to create an enduring campaign? Let’s explore.

Listen to what your audiences need

So, where did it all begin? ‘Twas a different time in ‘08 America - a country facing one of the biggest recessions in her history.

“Society was really concerned with the mainstream - the mom and pop shops – those local, family run businesses,” Clayton develops. “When we looked at that problem and how we could help, the first thing we thought of was funding because we’re a credit card company. But that isn’t what they really needed.”

So, Amex listened to their customers. Their response was clear - they needed foot traffic. And Small Business Saturday was born. Since then, Small Business Saturday has turned into a global movement, with consumers reportedly spending an estimated $163 billion at independent businesses on Small Business Saturday since its conception in 2010 in the US.

“Through the marketing prowess of Amex, could we create more foot traffic by highlighting the needs of these small businesses? And it worked”

For Clayton, Small Business Saturday’s appeal is characteristic of the programme: “People like small businesses! They represent 50-70% of most economies. As humans, we like those stores in our neighbourhoods - helping them out is something that’s hard to argue with.”

Give and you shall receive

Small Business Saturday hasn’t just transformed the way that we as consumers view small businesses, but played a role in showcasing Amex as a company that truly backs small business owners. Despite working with small businesses prior to Small Business Saturday, Clayton outlines “there used to be a perception that Amex wasn’t good for the little guy” - designed to suit the needs of large, global organisations. 

Small Business Saturday subverted that view. In a true symbiotic relationship, small businesses profited from Amex’s financial aid whilst allowing them to be engaged with audiences and build trust - a relationship that played out during the pandemic.

Once more, Amex listened to their audience. “A lot of what we saw was that small businesses in 2020 had more questions than answers: What do I do about my team coming to work? What do I do about travel policy? The office? How do I keep people safe? Government funding? They had a mountain of questions,” Clayton adds.

“We were cautious. If we entered the conversation, we wanted to enter it with a difference”

Seeking to democratise business education, Amex created content platform Business Class, to feature the latest trends and insight businesses need to know – all at no cost.

What started as IGTV episodes featuring famous business personalities like David Chang and Shaquille O’Neal expanded to “something enormous that’s bringing hundreds of thousands of people into that ecosystem and grown into being a proper programme.”

Taking the lessons learnt and a reputation earnt a decade prior, Amex gave their audience exactly what they needed. “When you ask ‘why does something like that work?’ the answer is that you’re filling a true need based on real insight. There’s longevity in that vs. a manufactured problem, need, or insight.”

Adapting to the pandemic

As Clayton maps, the initial chapters of the pandemic were about “finding your footing and survival,” before a period of stabilisation; “then more quickly than we could have realised, there were pockets that were doing well.”

For small businesses, the pandemic was both a blessing and a curse. Clayton recalls an Amex Business Class interview with David Chang; “he said something really noteworthy: we always talk about how hard it is to change our business because the metre is running. It’s hard to change tires whilst the car’s driving.”

“This is the one time in our history where the car’s stopped. We have an opportunity to not just do what we have to do to survive, but fix a lot of other things that were on the list before.”

But it doesn’t stop there. As Clayton outlines, small businesses in some ways had a competitive edge over larger companies during the pandemic: agility and adaptability. Despite sometimes having ‘less cash in the bank for a rainy day,’ smaller businesses were able to adapt quicker in terms of direction.

“I was shocked at how quickly businesses that were fully physical turned fully e-commerce, things like that. Those changes were really fast and things that a big company just couldn’t do,” Clayton elaborates.

“Small businesses were really up against the clock. Out of necessity and the shape of the organisation, many of them were able to change quicker than bigger companies”

“We’re doing better now than we did in 2019, 2020 and 2021. It’s been shocking,” he develops. “It speaks to mankind’s resilience and flexibility in the moment of need. (...) The truth is, we not only survived the pandemic, but thrived in many ways.”

Back to the future

Having made our way through the storm, it’s time to look to the future. What are some of the big trends in marketing that we can expect?

Data privacy

In the face of the death of third-party cookies, it hardly comes as a surprise that for Clayton, it’s time to get to grips with data privacy. As he outlines, for marketers, this means a move towards a better first-party, direct relationship with customers.

“It’s inevitable that people are going to want more control of their data as they see the downside of not having it”

Create open, honest relationships based on value exchange. “That’s a positive change that’s going to make things initially more difficult for marketers,” he continues. “But those who have a direct or trusted relationship with customers are going to win. And that’s what you’re seeing more big brands do.”

Balance of channels

This increase in data privacy brings with it a balance of channels - long gone are the days where performance marketing reigns supreme. It’s time to get creative.

Clayton recalls attending an event in Silicon Valley with CMOs from large digital, venture-backed organisations. “Almost all of these CMOs wanted to talk about television advertising, outdoor ads, experimental marketing. No one wanted to talk about performance marketing!,” he elaborates.

“That’s not to say that performance marketing isn’t great - it is!,” he continues. “But all these other channels have a wonderful role to play in the mix. And I think we’ve forgotten them. What you’ll see is a more healthy balance of the two.”

Go beyond the realms of business

Amex is certainly taking this message to heart. Adding ‘another arm in the ecosystem,’ Amex have launched their Money Minutes podcast, tapping into the eyeballs - “or rather earlobes" - of small business owners.

Recognising that “podcasts are a great place where we can play and make things more interesting,” Amex expanded their mid-scale investment to a larger partnership with The New York Times Advertising’s T Brand Studio with their global podcast The Next Chapter

In this book-style podcast, famous business authors whose work is part of popular culture are invited to “press play on the next chapter in business,” discussing how the pandemic has impacted their business and what’s on the horizon.

“I have no doubt that we’re truly helping businesses grow. It’s good for them and it’s good for us,” Clayton develops. “Small businesses making more money, growing to new locations, hiring more people is good for them, first and foremost. Then it’s going to be good for American Express - there’s more change and volume associated with that growth, more products we can service them with.”

A true win-win situation.

But that isn’t all. The Next Chapter aims to go beyond the world of business and into cultural content. Á la Nike, Clayton outlines a wider trend of transitioning the boundaries of the business world and bleeding into the mainstream. As he states:  “when you look at TEDTalks or shows like Shark Tank, they're starting to go beyond the category of business. It's not just business people reading business things to do better at work. It's become a part of culture and that's where we want to play.”

With this blurring of lines and balance of channels, it’s safe to say that the future of B2B is looking more creative than ever.

Tap into emotional customer messaging

So, what’s on Amex’s horizon? As Clayton outlines, “we’re so far down the history of having great data around marketing that I could pinch myself.” But it’s time to take it one step further. The next frontier? How can we forget click attribution as a concept?

“It’s always been nonsense. Nobody buys based on one thing except for maybe chewing gum at the end of a grocery aisle before they’re checking out,” Clayton quips. We need to get to grips with what touchpoints our audience engage with and how they work in the mix.

In a similar vein, Clayton discusses the opportunity for functional opportunities to improve account-based marketing at Amex. “It becomes really fun the smaller the target audience is, the more relevant the message can be,” he continues. “If I know that I'm marketing to a CFO at a massive multinational and I can know everything about their business, then my message can become incredibly spot on and that's really exciting.”

As Clayton continues, this laser-focused ABM allows for the opportunity to take businesses from “functional to highly emotional, culturally relevant, cool, fun and interesting” - “and I see it!,” he continues. “I see it with the events we run that feel vibrant and amazing. I see it in the content on television, movies and podcasts.”

Clayton’s overall message is clear: get to know your customers. If Small Business Saturday is anything to go by, you’ll reap the benefits for decades to come.

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