View from the C-Suite: Amex backs local businesses

CEO Lisa Kalhans says the 'Shop Small' program puts the brand's 'powerful backing' message to the service of small businesses.

Lisa Kalhans_Featured

More than two years ago, American Express unveiled a new “Powerful Backing” platform, unifying its U.S. and international brand strategies and aiming to show the many ways the financial services company supports people today, both in their personal and business lives.

It’s a message Lisa Kalhans, then serving as VP and general manager of international marketing within Amex’s global commercial services team, helped shape. And it’s one that the brand continues to back, says Kalhans, who became Canadian country manager and CEO for Amex in November, “even if it’s not always screaming from a billboard. It’s really not as much about the billboard as it is how we act and how we treat our customers.”

That call to action (and “powerful backing” message) resonates through “Shop Small,” a global and Canadian initiative launched last week whose goal is to support small businesses as they attempt to recover from the impacts of COVID-19. While “Shop Small” has been around for several years, says Kalhans, the size and scope of the campaign and program were expanded this year, as Amex aims to drive significant spending at local businesses across the country and the world.


The Shop Small program launched in Canada in 2013. What’s different about it this year? 

Shop Small represents everything we want to do about performance with purpose. This year in particular, we have such an important role to play in helping to mobilize our own cardmembers and encouraging all Canadians to show up for small businesses as they open back up – frankly, no matter how they pay. So we’re investing in global advertising that’s going to run across a number of different international markets, including Canada.

The campaign is backed by our largest-ever cardmember offer. The goal of that is to help jumpstart spending at local businesses. Cardmembers can get a $5 credit when they spend up to $10 at up to ten different small businesses, so a total of $50 in value throughout the program. We’re supporting it with advertising and PR, social, and a number of different communications to keep our cardmembers engaged throughout the [three-month] promotion.

All the photography and imagery features actual Canadian small businesses that are participating. We wanted to make those businesses the focus of everything that we’re doing. This campaign is about, ‘How do we highlight the connection that these business owners have with their local communities?’ I can’t get into all of the details of what marketing we’re going to be doing for the balance of the year. But this is going to be a major focus for us. It’s not our only focus, but a major focus.

Since the pandemic began, many companies have come out in support of small businesses. Why is this type of messaging the right fit for your brand? 

Our brand is about “powerful backing.” So we feel we have a right to play in this space and to talk about the shift towards shopping local, as so many beloved small businesses struggle.

Consumers want to shop local. In the studies that we’ve done, more than three-quarters of them agree that they’re determined to shop local and shop small at this point. As a brand that is all about “powerful backing” of small business and merchant partners, we feel it’s a natural fit.

What other changes have you needed to make in response to the pandemic? 

Cardmembers couldn’t necessarily access travel, entertainment and dining in the way that they had previously, so we had to think about how to boost everyday value. We did that in a number of ways, but it was primarily by increasing [how] cardmembers earn and redeem points for everyday purchases like groceries.

We invested in offers that prioritized categories where consumers were spending, like UberEats, Instacart and SkipTheDishes. We pivoted in our entertainment and lifestyle platforms. We’re now sponsoring Budweiser Stage at Home, a weekly one-hour TV series, where fans can enjoy live performances from their living rooms; we’re providing offers for meditation with Mindset brain gym in Toronto; we’re doing Cineplex online screenings and specially-curated events, like a recent live-stream with Alanis Morissette and Jagged Little Pill.

We’ve had to think about what customer value means at this time and about what else our customers need. A lot of customers were in financial distress, some of them for the first time due to no fault of their own. So we developed a range of longer-term assistance programs for customers who needed more time. And we extended eligibility for those programs and we enhanced them to ensure that we gave additional payment flexibility.

In your previous role, you managed a team of 200 marketers across more than 16 markets. Has that changed your perspective on working and leading remotely? 

The situation brings different challenges for everybody, and I think it’s really important to be open about that and to accommodate the unique needs of colleagues. Like many people, I’m a mom, I’ve got two kids at home, and so I’m juggling a new team and leading the company through this crisis, and making sure my kids are fed. At the same time, I’ve got colleagues who have health and health-care issues and others who are single and isolated in apartments.

I’ve challenged our team to check in on each other, personally and professionally, to show people that you care about them right now. The key at this time, especially for leaders, is to bring a level of humanity that we haven’t seen before in the workplace, even as we’re communicating via technology. I personally hope that doesn’t change when we go back to the office.

This interview is part of a series for Strategy C-Suite, a weekly email briefing on how Canada’s brand leaders are responding to market challenges and acting on new opportunities. Sign-up for the newsletter here to receive the latest stories directly to your inbox every Tuesday.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.