American Express CMO Behind The Platinum and Gold Cards Reveals ‘Customer First’ Approach

Aug 28, 2019

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Talking Points is in the C-Suite this week.

Brian Kelly, The Points Guy, welcomed the Chief Marketing Officer at American Express, Elizabeth Rutledge, on the podcast to chat about the the changes she’s both seen and led in her 25-plus years with the company. She explains her role in leading Amex’s charge card portfolio — you can thank her for your beloved Platinum and Gold card, the message behind American Express’s brand platform  — “Powerful Backing” — and the company’s commitment to diversity and inclusion: “You need to have diverse perspectives around the table in order to make great work and in order to drive growth,” she said.

What to Listen For:

  • Amex’s latest campaign “Backing to Thrive” and how it puts you, the customer, first.
  • How Amex provides customers with experiences, like early access to tickets or exclusive events, and not just products.
  • The gig economy and why Rutledge believes the US in the middle of a work transformation.

In Amex’s 169 years as a company, Rutledge tells TPG that much of what the brand focused on its early stages still holds true today: Service, Security, and Trust. Rutledge explains in the podcast how Amex continues to evolve to meet its customers needs, as well as creating opportunities through its Leadership Academy. This fall, through the Leadership Academy, Amex will be bringing together more than 70 leaders in the LGTBQ nonprofit space to provide advice, coaching, and networking opportunities for younger individuals.

Tune into today’s episode for more on how Rutledge is shaping the brand’s message and services you can expect as an Amex card holder. You can play this episode above, or wherever you listen to your podcasts. And please remember to subscribe (for free), rate, and share with your friends.


Featured Photo by Natalie Roe

Full Transcript:

Brian Kelly: Welcome to this episode of Talking Points. I’m your host, Brian Kelly. Elizabeth Rutledge is the chief marketing officer of American Express. Elizabeth, thank you so much for joining us on Talking Points.

Elizabeth Rutledge: Oh, really happy to be here, Brian. Thanks for having me.

Brian Kelly: So wait, are you a points girl? Like do you maximize your points?

Elizabeth Rutledge: I love to hoard them.

Brian Kelly: Oh no!

Elizabeth Rutledge:: And save them up.

Brian Kelly: Well, that’s actually good. As long as you use them though, you do have a plan to use them, right?

Elizabeth Rutledge: I definitely have a plan to use them, but I love to save them, save them, save them, and then use them all at once, drain the bank, and then start to build it up again.

Brian Kelly: That’s at least not hoarding in my opinion. Like some people have this like mental thing where they just like need to have millions at all times. I mean that sounds like a smart strategy though, to like take some amazing trips. So you’ve been at Amex for over 14, coming on 15 years now?

Elizabeth Rutledge: No, actually I’ve been at Amex over 25 years.

Brian Kelly: Did you always know you wanted to be a CMO?

Elizabeth Rutledge: Absolutely not. So let me tell you a little bit about the story. I always wanted to be a doctor, and when I graduated from college, thought that that’s where I was going to go. And then the journey seemed daunting. And so what I did instead was taught for two years high school biology in Manhattan and had just a great experience. I mean, it’s a real formative time in my life, in terms of how do you get up in front of 30 ninth graders —

Brian Kelly: And hold their attention.

Elizabeth Rutledge: Exactly. For more than five minutes.

Brian Kelly: Do you use those same skills in your job today?

Elizabeth Rutledge: You have to be definitely a little bit of an entertainer. Right? You definitely do. But it was a really great experience. And then in between summers of teaching, I actually worked at NYNEX, which is now Verizon, and got my first taste of what marketing and advertising is all about. And then decided to spend time there at NYNEX —

Brian Kelly: So was that a tough decision to leave teaching?

Elizabeth Rutledge: It was a very tough decision. But you have to remember, like all of us, just at the beginning, trying to figure out what what we want to do. But the minute I got a taste of marketing and advertising, then I got really excited about just understanding customer insights and customer needs and trying to create experiences out of those. So I was at NYNEX for about four or five years and then got a great opportunity at American Express and have been there ever since.

Brian Kelly: And so what was American Express like when you first started? Like, how would you describe the product and the company in general?

Elizabeth Rutledge: There are a lot of common threads. And I’d start first with just what the Amex brand is all about — service, security, trust. But if you flip back that long ago, we were really known much more as a T & E brand back in those days. And really proud to have been on the journey with the company, in terms of really making sure that we had products and services for those travel moments, but for those everyday moments as well. So I think that’s where we’ve transitioned.

Brian Kelly: So the first role at Amex was which division of the company?

Elizabeth Rutledge: I was in the consumer division when I first started. And the really cool thing about my journey is I’ve pretty much had kind of every role that you can possibly imagine. I was fortunate enough to kind of lead our iconic charge-card portfolio. I had been responsible for some of the biggest partner negotiations, as well as creating a whole merchant-offers ecosystem that is really powered by machine learning and matching our customers with great merchant offers.

Elizabeth Rutledge: So, I’ve really done a lot. And what’s been really great about that is I’ve seen both the business segment and the personal or the consumer segment. And because I know a lot of those insights and understand the customers deeply, it’s really helping me in terms of making my decisions here and now as a CMO.

Brian Kelly: What is your role? How do you explain you know at a dinner party what your role is as CMO of Amex?

Elizabeth Rutledge: So I am definitely the defender and the protector and, I think, the innovator of the brand — that would be the way I would describe myself. As well as probably the chief collaborator officer. I’m just really trying to connect the dots across our enterprise in terms of making sure that we’re just delivering the world’s best experiences kind of every single day. And it requires a great team, you know, and all sorts of functions to make that happen.

Brian Kelly: So you’ve got gotta think about the the small-business customer, the consumers. What are some of those divisions within the company that a lot of people don’t know about?

Elizabeth Rutledge: A couple things that I would say when you ask that question, and it’s all around how I really focus on customer needs and customer segments. So you mentioned already small business, and obviously consumers as well. But another customer that I think people don’t sometimes realize is the merchant customer as well because we have a network business as well. And I was in that division for a long time and really sort of respect and understand what those merchants are trying to do in terms of grow their business. And we want to be there right with them in terms of how we can help them as well as they certainly are important for us in terms of just making sure that our card is accepted and used in those locations.

Elizabeth Rutledge: The other customer segment, really not customer segment, but that I’m very focused on is our own employees. Because I feel really strongly that, as CMO, that I need to really make sure that we’re delivering in terms of that backing promise that I know we’ll talk more about as much for our customers as for our employees. So I spend a lot of time thinking about how we show up as an employer brand and what we’re doing in terms of the value propositions for employees —

Brian Kelly: That’s really fascinating. How would you describe the culture? Like what is working at Amex like?

Elizabeth Rutledge: It’s very much a relationship-based culture. I don’t think that that would surprise you because that’s what the brand is as about as well. What keeps me there every day are just the great people. Incredibly thoughtful, have great experiences, a diversity of perspectives. It’s just a fun place to be. It really is.

Brian Kelly: Yeah, I mean I would just say how remarkable the internal mobility is. I know I get emails from people saying, “Oh, I’m no longer going to be working with The Points Guy in this role.” But I’m like, don’t worry because no matter what —

Elizabeth Rutledge: — you’re going to find them. I know you’re going to find them. So, I’m not worried about that.

Brian Kelly: We launched our business in the UK this April and meeting with the Amex teams there, I’m like, “Wait a minute.”

Elizabeth Rutledge: You were there, oh yeah. I think that’s what’s so great about the company and also great about my own personal experience, in terms of having jobs that are very local in nature, having some jobs that are global in nature, a variety of different functions as well. And we pride ourselves on trying to create those leadership experiences. We’re all about a culture of bringing along the next generation of leaders, so I think you’ve seen it and felt it just by your experiences that you’ve had at Amex.

Brian Kelly: If someone listening to this podcast wants to be a CMO of a major company in this day and age, like I think people think of CMOs as highly creative, understanding their consumers, but so much today is data-driven. What are some of the areas that you would recommend people really brushing up on to become a really solid marketer in this day and age?

Elizabeth Rutledge: As you bring up, just the focus on data and analytics, I think it’s just so incredibly important that you understand what the new technologies are out there. Whether we’re talking about things from an AI and a machine-learning perspective, there is such a tight linkage at American Express between our brand and our performance marketing as well.

Elizabeth Rutledge: I still think time and time again it is about those consumer insights. The other thing that I would say though is that there’s so much happening in the industry, and we can talk a little bit about that, but a couple of different trends. The explosion of channels in terms of the way people are consuming information, and you really —

Brian Kelly: Is Amex on TikTok yet? That’s like one of the new ones where I’m like, you know, I’m technically a millennial grasping onto that title, but I don’t even —

Elizabeth Rutledge: I’m definitely not, Brian, OK? We’ll be clear about that.

Brian Kelly: All of these channels and how they can impact your business and changing what ROI is on a campaign.

Elizabeth Rutledge: You have to really … I mean I spend a lot of time reading, asking questions, and trying to find the experts because you can’t always be the expert. But you’re absolutely right. Just a proliferation of channels that are out there and you really need to understand them or find someone that can help you understand them. I think the other thing is the agency model is changing. So the partners that I’m working with, a lot of them are specialists. There are some generalists out there and those models are changing and sort of how you partner, what teams or colleagues that you put together to make a great campaign, a great platform, have changed dramatically because of the complexity of the environment.

Brian Kelly: So you’re in charge of steering the brand of one of America’s most respected companies. And your newest campaign is “Backing to Thrive,” which actually I think kind of hearkens back to the original, the old-school message of, as you mentioned, that American Express whether you’re a business or a consumer, is here to back you up. Can you talk a little bit about what “backing to thrive” means?

Elizabeth Rutledge: Sure. To me, as we were talking earlier, it’s this powerful backing promise. And we are always, always thinking about the customer. As I said, the customer is the north star for us. I feel that there are three kind of key changes that have been going on with customers. And I think you know this really well, Brian, yourself in terms of all the work that you are doing.

Elizabeth Rutledge: One, customers are just much more global. And by the way, you can be global by just sitting in your chair and have connections through the internet and can dream and aspire to travel, even if you don’t sort of leave the chair. And so that interconnectedness I think is sort of really important and we’re trying to capture the spirit of that in terms of how we can back our customers in those types of moments as they’re traveling, as they’re discovering, as they’re exploring. So that’s one trend.

Elizabeth Rutledge: I think the next trend is this trend all around people living hybrid lives. And while I think we’ve always had to balance kind of our work and our personal life, they’re becoming so much more kind of intertwined. People don’t live 9-to-5 lives anymore. And even if we just take the example of kind of the gig economy, and I think we’re going to be looking back 10 years from now and say, “Wow, this was a moment of work transformation,” as well, in terms of people getting two, three paychecks all at once versus one.

Elizabeth Rutledge: And so you think about that segment of that audience and how can we be there to help back those freelancers in their moments of trying to drive their personal brand in a business setting or even helping large corporations as they think about their workforce and what kinds of services that they need. So there’s so much there in terms of what’s going on in those blended and integrated lives. And I think that there’s so many products and services that we have that help with that.

Elizabeth Rutledge: And then the last thing that I also know that you mentioned and talk about quite a bit is, I think it’s all about experiences, not products. And I don’t think that that’s just a millennial insight. I think we all care about experiences.

Brian Kelly: Yeah, I know. I’m so ready to throw out the whole “millennials are the experience generation,” like people have lived through experiences and travel since humans were created. That’s I think as a species it’s all about experience. But specifically, I mean I think American Express has gone in a crowded marketplace, in the US specifically, like lots of different issuers out there and products and networks …

Brian Kelly: … but American Express with Centurion Lounges, with festival activations, with not just “here’s a presale code,” but like, here’s … at Coachella, I personally always go to the Platinum house, which is just cool and it’s a cardmember-only experience. You don’t need to pay. The Centurion Lounges I love because I can bring a friend and we’re not going to get nickel-and-dimed. Like you feel protected with Amex. I think off the bat “backing to thrive” almost seems like, oh, is that made for small businesses? But it actually is very, that’s a consumer-focused statement, as well, right?

Elizabeth Rutledge: Absolutely. And just so we can link into from a consumer perspective, because I think that’s a great point. I mean this is all about, “What do you care about, Brian? What’s important to you?” And I just want to make sure that I, or we, American Express can provide those great benefits and services to help you in terms of, if you love to travel, I want to make sure that we’re there helping you. Again, both in terms of that explore and discover and then actually, as you mentioned, in terms of some of the great events and experiences that I think oftentimes those are either once in a lifetime or sometimes they can be kind of on an annual basis.

Elizabeth Rutledge: I’m also very focused on those everyday moments and those everyday experiences. And let me tell you what I mean a little bit about that and I’ll give you an example just of what happened to me recently. I got a charge on my Amex statement and I realized right away it was not me. Someone had gone to a —

Brian Kelly: Wrong person to defraud. If you’re a fraudster out there you should —

Elizabeth Rutledge: Someone had used my card and spent quite a bit of money in a lingerie department of a retailer. I certainly was not there at that moment doing that. But what was really great from an American Express perspective is just immediately getting a text. Is this you? Is this your transaction? And the ability to know that Amex had my back in that moment and just with a quick text back, I can say, “No, that wasn’t me.” And I know that they have my back. So as much as we were talking about those experiences at Coachella, I think that those everyday moments that —

Brian Kelly: People understand that. Yeah, I mean, and look, we’re called The Points Guy, but perks and benefits can way outweigh points when you think big picture. I had a similar experience. Well, actually this one’s all my fault actually. But I bought a Moncler jacket. We were filming in Iceland and I left it in a frenzy, and I realized that it was gone. And Amex on my Platinum card instantly took it off. And we’ve had so many instances with our Points Pups in the office, one of them has a liking for expensive eyewear, and Amex actually was really amazing with that. And that’s actually something, because American Express, actually, you guys own that feature. A lot of card companies will outsource benefits. You guys take pride in owning a lot of that cardmember benefit, right?

Elizabeth Rutledge: It’s important that the experience to me is seamless. It’s frictionless. And it’s delivering value. And then most importantly, as I hear you talk about experiences that you had, it’s created emotional connection for you at the end of the day. And that’s what it’s all about, in my opinion. Those rational connections sort of leading to that loyalty. And that’s the most important thing.

Brian Kelly: Kudos as a marketer. I love the Lin-Manuel piece. I know you guys have done a lot with him and he’s just an amazing person. But the piece about being the same old Lin that he was and the piece travels with him back to his barbershop, and that inspiration can strike you at any point. I actually got chills watching that one-minute spot. So If you’re listening, Google American Express Lin-Manuel. What was it like working with him?

Elizabeth Rutledge: He is an amazing brand ambassador. And he sort of demonstrates, I think, that powerful backing promise himself. And the spot that you’re referencing is a very personal one for him and for me, in terms of both the making of it and how it turned out. And all of the people that are featured there are a part of Lin’s extended family, which I think is just special in and of itself, in terms of what Lin’s all about. But more importantly, and I know probably a lot of your listeners know about what Lin has been doing, but just really a passionate advocate for small business and certainly a passionate advocate for Washington Heights and Puerto Rico. That’s a special sort of bond that we have in terms of our care and sort of our nurturing of our small businesses. So it made sense to partner with him because it’s true. It just lives up to our powerful backing promise and he couldn’t be a better person to do something like that.

Brian Kelly: One of the things I respect about American Express is you guys give back in so many different ways to the arts. I was with Pharrell and Missy Elliot last year at the Brooklyn Museum. That was an unbelievable event raising money for the arts. You support so many amazing causes. How do members give back? Because I know that’s a big part of being an American Express cardholder.

Elizabeth Rutledge: First and foremost, really want to make sure that what we’re doing is backing communities and backing local communities in terms of what they want and what they need. And the other part are foundation of our efforts, aside from that backing and that localness and that community nature is, I mentioned this earlier, Brian, is just bringing up the next generation of leaders. And that’s really important. We talked about it internally within our colleague base, our employee base, in terms of what we’re doing from a leadership development perspective. We also do that very much externally and I’d love to give you an example here in terms of leadership academy program that you may or may not be aware of.

Elizabeth Rutledge: We just held one and the focus was on women in music, and really it was all about giving younger executives in the music industry an opportunity to meet with one another, to network with one another. Also, we provided some one-on-one coaching and a lot of great speakers and presentations just to just ensure, particularly in an industry where women are trying to sort of rise up and you don’t see as many senior women leaders in that industry, to sort of give them this networking opportunity, this ability to get skills and toolkits and coaching to help them along their career journey. And actually this fall we’re going to have 70 LGBTQ leaders in the nonprofit area to come in as well and to be part of the leadership academy.

Brian Kelly: That’s amazing.

Elizabeth Rutledge: And I just feel really strongly in terms of just trying to help this next generation of leaders.

Brian Kelly: As a gay entrepreneur, thank you for that. That would’ve been amazing when I was getting started. I am very fortunate and have had great people in my life support me, but kudos to you for that. I know it was just Pride Month. I actually am kicking myself, couldn’t make your Lizzo concert for your LGBT event. But the company has an incredible commitment to diversity, but that word can mean a lot of different things to different people. How do you describe, and I know you’re a vocal proponent of this —

Elizabeth Rutledge: I’m very vocal about this. I think diversity is just so vital to American Express. And it’s just interwoven in our fabric and part of our culture. The way I think about it is that you need to have diverse perspectives around the table in order to make great work in order to drive growth. And also as we talked about in terms of just helping communities. And so I just feel really strongly about that. I’ve been very vocal, particularly around women in leadership, and really trying to be an advocate, a supporter, a mentor, and a voice wherever I can both within American Express and outside.

Elizabeth Rutledge: And then to do things like we just participated with Verizon, with AdFellows, and I don’t know if you know a bit about the program there, but partnered with Diego Scotti at Verizon. And really what that program is all about is the ability to attract young, diverse talent into the advertising and marketing industry. Because when you look at the percentages of diverse populations in marketing and advertising, it’s low. And really trying to give them this great experience. Think about sort of like a six-, eight-month internship, and a bunch of us companies have gotten together and they rotate around.

Brian Kelly: So you take a very hands-on approach, like let’s not talk about it, let’s actually bring people in and create the platform to do that.

Elizabeth Rutledge: That’s exactly right. And I’m very proud of participation in programs like that. Because you’re absolutely right. You can’t just talk about it. You have to sort of take —

Brian Kelly: Or put money towards a group to talk more about it, like let’s just actually —

Elizabeth Rutledge: No, you have to take, you have to take action. And there are little and big things all of us can do to make a difference.

Brian Kelly: I think it’s … we at The Points Guy, I’m proud that we’re 55% female, actually, that work at The Points Guy. But diversity and other viewpoints, and racial, it’s difficult. In our aviation niche, we have struggled not speaking to the right people, but they are out there. And until you take an active role, you can’t just say we’re small or people haven’t applied, therefore, that’s why we may look a certain way. And we’ve really in the last year taken efforts to open up, go to the National Association of Black Journalists. And we now have this huge pipeline of really rich, amazing talent. I mean it is good for business, having those different viewpoints at your company. So thank you for your commitment to that.

Brian Kelly: I know you’re also on the board of the YMCA in Greater New York.

Elizabeth Rutledge: Oh, it’s a special place. I’ve been on the board, actually, I think it’s now six, seven years. Feel just very passionate about that organization. And you’ll see a running theme in terms of both what I feel strongly about at work and what I feel strongly about outside of work. The Y I think is just a great place for young kids who may not have other opportunities both to see mentors and advocates and to help them both in terms of their leadership skills, help them as they take one step in front of the other in terms of their journey through school, and helping them get into college. There’s so many just really great things about the Y and also I just think it’s just local community and people feeling very special and bonded by where they live and the commonalities that they share there.

Brian Kelly: I think that’s more important than ever in this social media age where everything. I think there’s something amazing obviously, running a digital business, about the digital world, but also I think it’s important that we give local communities a place to come together and a place to network.

Elizabeth Rutledge: It’s all about those humans connections at the end of the day.

Brian Kelly: We can’t forget about that.

Elizabeth Rutledge: No, totally, there’s —

Brian Kelly: No amount of AI or data is going to replace that. You’re the CMO of Amex. I just, I have to know which Amex card or cards do you use the most? Like what’s top of wallet for Elizabeth Rutledge?

Elizabeth Rutledge: Well, of course they have to be American Express cards. And they’re two. They’re Platinum and they are Platinum Corporate and the Platinum personal card.

Brian Kelly: So for personal, use Platinum.

Elizabeth Rutledge: Yes. And love it, love it, love it.

Elizabeth Rutledge: And their Platinum Corporate —

Brian Kelly: And of the Platinum, so you must love Centurion Lounges. Do you have a favorite Centurion Lounge that you’ve visited so far?

Elizabeth Rutledge: Near and dear to my heart is the first one we opened in LaGuardia. And I was there at the beginning helping to sort of run the lounge network and help —

Brian Kelly: I still love that LaGuardia lounge. I was there for the opening dinner years ago. That was such an exciting time. I’m excited for all the new ones coming up in, what, Denver and Phoenix, and I always try to needle for information. I don’t think I’m getting any today.

Elizabeth Rutledge: No, you’re not going to get it today.

Brian Kelly: But destination-wise, where have you not been that you’re dying to go?

Elizabeth Rutledge: Ah, that’s a great question. OK. Top of mind, India.

Brian Kelly: India?

Elizabeth Rutledge: I’ve never been to India before.

Brian Kelly: I went once years ago to Goa and Mumbai, but it was like for a quick event, in and out. I’m actually going this December for two weeks.

Elizabeth Rutledge: So I’m sure you have some tips that you can share with me.

Brian Kelly: Yeah, I’ll definitely be able to give after, but I’m so excited to spend several weeks. We actually, one of the organizations we work with is called Peace Jam, and it’s 14 Nobel Peace Prize winners. And actually it started out Points for Peace. We were donating our Amex points because we use our Business Gold Card to do all of our Facebook spend. So we actually fly Nobel Peace Prize winners to kids around the world to basically build similar to like YMCAs, to build a network of kids who want to be the next generation of nonviolent leaders. So we take the teachings of the Dalai Lama, and in India, the first ever Indian laureate is Kailash Satyarthi and he is amazing.

Brian Kelly: I’m actually going to spend Christmas at his ashram out in northern India. He won the Nobel Peace Prize for helping to stop child slavery in India. And him and his wife are the most, I get chills thinking about them. They’ve saved 90,000 kids from slavery.

Elizabeth Rutledge: That sounds amazing. Just really amazing.

Brian Kelly: So I will give you lots of tips from my trip there. Thank you so much for joining Talking Points. If you could end on a final note, if there’s someone listening that maybe, that doesn’t have an Amex card or maybe has thoughts in their head, the card’s too high of a credit score to get it, or they’re just not thinking about Amex, what would you say to someone why they would want to get an Amex card?

Elizabeth Rutledge: It’s going to come back to what we’ve been talking about all along. We have your back. We’re going to have your back. And we’re there for you both in those big moments and those small everyday moments. And it’s all about service, security, and that trusting relationship, that human connection that we were just talking about. That’s why if you don’t have an American Express card, you need to have one.

Brian Kelly: Sold. Elizabeth Rutledge, thank you so much for joining Talking Points. You are an inspiration as a leader in the industry, so thank you for all you’re doing for not just Amex, but all of the organizations you support.

Elizabeth Rutledge: Thanks so much for having me. Really enjoyed it.

Brian Kelly: That’s it for this episode of Talking Points. I am your host, Brian Kelly. And once again, a huge thank you to Elizabeth Rutledge and her team at American Express who made this happen, and also to my amazing podcast team, Margaret Kelly, Caroline Schagrin, and my super-awesome assistant, Christie Matsui. Thank you so much for everything you do for me. That’s it for this episode. Safe travels.


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