Media People: Elizabeth Rutledge, CMO of American Express

Elizabeth Rutledge was teaching ninth-grade biology in New York City in the late 1980s when she contemplated a career in marketing and subsequently interned at Nynex, now part of Verizon, in between school years.

“Loved it, loved it, loved it,” said Rutledge, who was so hooked that she soon quit teaching to step into a full-time position at Nynex, before landing at American Express.

More than three decades later, she’s risen through the ranks to become chief marketing officer — the first woman to hold the position at the financial services giant — overseeing the brand’s global media, communications, sponsorships, experiences and customer insights.

“So much has changed from when I started,” she continued. “Even the digital transformation. Twenty-five years ago, if you think about it, there was no web or anything like that. Just to think about the fact that there’s Craigslist and eBay and the list goes on and on of companies that weren’t there 25 years ago so that transformation I think has been just super amazing. If you think about our ability to do real-time customized, personalized marketing now, the explosion of the communication channels that has happened — it’s been a ride and also just a great time.

But while much has changed since she joined Amex, there have also been many dramatic shifts more recently — namely the fact that she was chatting to WWD over Zoom from the attic of her Connecticut house, her temporary work station since March 2020 when Amex’s 65,000-person global workforce was sent home amid the pandemic. She joked that “she’s ready to get out” and will most likely return to the office after Labor Day.

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Another big change at Amex in terms of marketing was its decision to move Departures and Centurion magazines to a digital-first platform, ending its publishing deal with Meredith Corp. and resulting in layoffs. While there was much speculation at the time that production would be brought in-house, it is actually being overseen by a trio of companies — Giant Spoon, The New York Times’ T Brand Studio and Kettle — with the first digital edition of Departures set to be released on June 23.

Then there’s its first Membership Week, which makes its debut today, with exclusive offers for members — two million of which joined in the first quarter — across dining, travel, wellness, retail and entertainment.

Here, Rutledge talks about the new-look Departures for the first time, partnering with media brands for Membership Week and what spending trends Amex is seeing as the U.S. continues to reopen.

WWD: What’s happening with Departures?

Elizabeth Rutledge: This will be the first time I’m talking about it. I’m just so excited about both the redesign, but also in my mind even more important the expanse of digital ecosystem that we’re going to create from a content perspective. We’re going to launch this on June 23 and we partnered with some great creative powerhouses including Giant Spoon, as well as The New York Times’ T Brand Studio and Kettle. I just can’t wait for readers to see it. As you know we’ve been around for 40 years and it’s so important that we don’t lose that premiere storytelling both about the global consumer and the luxury travel market. We’ll honor that historic past, but I also think that it’s important to expand our offering. So this first issue is going to focus on the theme of returns and I love this because I think it’s all about what it means to either go back where we came from or to begin again and I think it’s really relevant as the world opens up in terms of returning to travel, returning to your friends and to your family.

WWD: Have you worked out how many digital issues you’ll have or if there will be a print component?

E.R.: We’re going to certainly plan out an editorial calendar as one would and we are definitely really leaning in on our digital content. I do think that there are potential opportunities for print and they’ll be special, unique and in my opinion probably collectible. I think there’s just a unique power in terms of having that option over time. But I’m really excited about this digital step. We’ll hear from our readers and I think the good news is we can evolve it as time goes on.

WWD: Will you also be doing the same for Centurion?

E.R.: Departures is complimentary for both Platinum and Centurion card members.

WWD: Why did you decide to do this?

E.R.: This is what our readers wanted. This is how most of us consume our information and our content. I also just think the flexibility it gives us over time, this notion of being always on, the ability to share. There’s so many different good reasons to make this push forward. I’m just really excited about it. We’ve got a great all-star list of contributors as well. The stories are just going to be fascinating and I think the really cool thing about this is there will be certainly the written word, but there will also be video components to this as well. So just that interaction that I think you can really touch it and feel it in a very different engaging and stimulating way is just going to be great.

WWD: Do you have an editor in chief?

E.R.: We have a combination of all three of those groups working together to make it happen and just some great contributors, including Brett Easton Ellis, Ivy Elrod, David Benjamin Sherry, Korsha Wilson and Shruti Ganguly. Just a great combination of people that are well known in their craft from great filmmakers, authors, columnists, photographers, actors.

WWD: Have you had a good response from advertisers?

E.R.: This kind of content is going to give so much more flexibility in terms of who can participate with us in so many ways, shapes and forms.

WWD: And it must be so nice not to have the pressure of newsstand sales.

E.R.: [Laughs] I hadn’t thought about that.

WWD: What is the most important medium of marketing to Amex now?

E.R.: We want to be where our customers are. No doubt about it. It’s all about digital. It really is. What we’ve done over the years is recognize that need and just focus in on our online channels, our app and just making sure that we’ve created services that meet those customers where they are. We need to be streamlined and frictionless in the way we both talk to them and the way they interact with us.

WWD: Is Amex on any newer social media platforms like TikTok or Clubhouse?

E.R.: We’re exploring, testing and learning and that’s where we should be in terms of those areas because if our customers are there we need to be there, but I also think you need to be native to the channel in terms of what makes them special and different and make sure we have content that’s relevant to who’s going there and how the channel works. I think that’s important and we’re constantly trying, learning as these new channels open up.

WWD: Out of the more traditional social media do you have one of those that’s bigger for you than the others in terms of marketing?

E.R.: We’re in all of them because all of them are important and again I like to think about in terms of the relevance in the moment. I’ll give you an example of how to think about it. We have a great partnership with the NBA and I feel like Twitter and NBA, they go together like PB&J. So when we’re thinking about things that we need to talk to our customers about related to the benefits that we have with that partnership with NBA, then that’s a great channel to talk to them. That’s the way my teams were thinking about it in terms of just delivering those relevant benefits, those relevant messages in the channels that are connected.

WWD: How did the pandemic alter your marketing strategy?

E.R.: We had to think about what are our customer needs from us at the moment. Think back to March of last year in terms of how all travel stopped so we really needed to understand what our customers were doing, what they needed at that moment in their attics, their living rooms, their kitchen in terms of a value so what we did at the time was really focus on giving them value that was meaningful in those everyday moments. So things like streaming credits or wireless credits or tools for the workplace given that everybody was working from home and needed different tools. That was really part of our focus. We also have this great benefit called Amex offers — hundreds of offers from all sorts of retailers. So a real big push in terms of what they needed most, which was food delivery and supermarket offers. Life really stopped, pivoted and changed and we did the exact same thing in making sure that we delivered that value in the moment from an everyday perspective. Now, obviously we need to be there for our customers as they return to travel so you’ll see a lot more from us there. The last thing is that we care passionately about small businesses. We have for an incredibly long time and we will continue to and it’s part of our DNA. They are the fabric of local communities. They contribute so greatly to the local economy and so a lot of our focus was on helping those businesses survive and I think now we’re in a moment of pivot in terms of helping them thrive.

WWD: You said you pivoted, but did you also have to cut back on advertising?

E.R.: We made shifts and changes in terms of where and how we were spending our marketing. Rather than focus on cutting back what we really tried to do was give value back to our card members. That was the big focus in terms of where we spent our time, our energy and our dollars.

WWD: Why are you launching Membership Week?

E.R.: Educating our existing customers on all the great benefits and services that they have when they’re with Amex, but I also think it’s an opportunity for us to tell those that are not with us what they’re missing by not being with Amex. It’s also a way for us to thank our card members for their loyalty and the trust that they’ve been placing with us every single day. Membership Week is going to launch starting today through Friday, the 18th, and what I’m so excited about is really focusing in each day on a key card member passion point, whether it be all things wellness, which is so important these days, whether it’s about shopping, whether it’s about travel, whether it’s about entertainment, whether it’s about dining and we just have great offers as I keep referencing, great surprises and delights, some really great experiences as well.

WWD: What are some of the offers?

E.R.: One that stands out for me is that we’re going to give our card members complimentary access to Amex Unstaged. It will be a must-see performance by Sza. We’re going to have a virtual dining class with David Chang from Momofuku. Again that’s a key passion point for our customers. We’re going to have meditation sessions from Calm. We’re going to have workout classes from Equinox. Quincy Moore, who is the founder of Knowlita and New York or Nowhere, is going to create this really cool travel capsule collection of clothes that our card members are going to be able to curate, vote on and ultimately buy. Last but not least I’m excited about some of the partnerships we’re going to have with Vox and Thrillist and Condé Nast. In particular, Wired and Vanity Fair are going to remove their paywalls during the week — courtesy of Amex — so I’m really fired up and excited for that.

WWD: How do the media partnerships work financially?

E.R.: We’ve established a partnership with them and I certainly don’t want to share all of the nitty-gritty details. We have great relationships with them so we’ve worked out a great partnership that’s adding value for both our card members and well as prospects. This is what I like about this. Just a taste of what membership could be like.

WWD: What spending trends are you seeing?

E.R.: Excluding travel and entertainment for a second, it was 11 percent higher in our first quarter this year than it was in first-quarter 2019, which I think is a good comparison for the retail side of spend. That really represents the majority of spend on our network. The other thing is we’ve definitely seen in recent weeks an uptick in travel and entertainment as well in the U.S. and I really think that bodes well in terms of a domestic consumer travel recovery. The watch-out is going to be business travel and just how fast that will come back.

WWD: How do you use customer data for marketing?

E.R.: The first thing that I would say is for just the need to be respectful of our customers’ privacy. That’s paramount to me. We definitely leverage our customer data in a privacy and compliant way, but for me it’s what we referenced earlier in terms of that real-time personalization and what we can do with that data to deliver the right offer at the right time in the right channel for you.


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