American Express: an example of smart destination branding

Tom Dougherty, CEO – Stealing Share

6 July 2012

American Express defines its customer

There’s a lesson to be learned here. In Travel Weekly’s “Power List 2012” – which is based on numerous factors, including sales – the No. 1 spot is once again held by American Express.

Many of the brands you might expect are in the Top 10, online booking sites such as Expedia and Priceline, for instance. But I agree that American Express is the most powerful player in the destination and travel market.

“The key is that American Express has not tried to be everything to everyone.”

There’s a simple explanation for this: American Express has a brand that is as much about the people it’s for as the people it’s not. It is for travelers, especially business people, who “don’t leave home with it” and want to project a certain upper-class image. The key is that American Express has not tried to be everything to everyone. When a company does that, it is for no one.

American ExpressThis is the trap that destinations – and most brands within the travel industry, for that matter – fall into. Instead of pinpointing their target market, they simply sell “getting away” or the amenities that exist at their particular destination. In the context of the competition, those messages are meaningless.

The usual approach is timid because it demonstrates that the destination brands are afraid of putting a stake in the ground. If we say we are only for X, then we’ll never get Y, they say.

The wrongheadedness of this is that if X is emotionally powerful, most audiences will want to define themselves as X – just as the large numbers of American Express customers have done. Very few travelers don’t want to think of themselves as cultured, smart and knowledgeable about the world around them.

Putting a stake in the ground is easier said than done. But the ones who take that step wield the most power. As Travel Weekly has noted, American Express is a case in point.

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