t's no secret that the economy is often more sour than sweet for small businesses. Economic woes that equate in severity to an upset stomach for large corporations can be like a fatal case of food poisoning for smaller firms. A division of American Express Co., American Express Open offers credit-card and charge-card products for small businesses. Aware of the challenges its customers face every day, its marketing strategy has long sought to educate small business owners not only about its products, but also about how to run their businesses better.
The 2013 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), which draws small business owners like the promise of free food attracts college students, was the perfect opportunity for American Express Open to start conversations with potential card applicants or current cardholders and continue its long-standing education strategy. In fact, 49 percent of CES attendees represent businesses with 50 or fewer employees, and an additional 14 percent of attendees represent medium-sized businesses with 50 to 250 employees.
With well over half of the show's nearly 153,000 attendees representing its target customer profile, attracting an audience would be a cakewalk, save for one caveat: By stepping outside of its industry, American Express Open had to justify its presence at CES. After all, with nary a tech toy in sight, attendees might wonder what a credit-card company was doing at an electronics show — and target attendees might opt out of visiting the American Express Open exhibit in their hunt for the next great gadget.
To develop a strategy that would alleviate confusion and cater to small business owners' needs, American Express Open joined forces with Momentum Worldwide, a New York-based experiential-marketing agency. "If you were to take a big step back and think about what makes our client different, American Express Open is not endemic in any trade show space. So for them, when they're competing against booths that have the latest technology, we have to really deliver a different kind of value to get attendees to stop and pay attention," says Nicole Kaplan, vice president, group account director at Momentum Worldwide.
But stepping outside of its industry didn't mean that American Express Open's exhibiting efforts weren't purposeful. "When we go to a trade show, it's a fantastic opportunity for us to talk to small business owners because they're really thinking about the futures of their businesses, whether that is the direction that their industries are going, or inventory that they need to buy, or meeting people that are going to be new customers or suppliers," says Bethany Barefoot, director of trade shows and field sales at American Express Open.
Chew on This
American Express Open approached CES 2013 with education as its primary goal — both for new and existing cardholders. "Being from outside the industry, it's important to us that we can not only talk about the ways that we support business owners, but also give them real examples from within their industry," Barefoot says. Education was also identified as a key void American Express Open could fill through its presence at CES because, according to Phil Koutsis, vice president, group creative director at Momentum Worldwide, "There's not a lot of education that happens on the show floor itself. We wanted to bring education to the show floor with some amazing talent who could speak about the impact of technology on small businesses and how it affects the entire industry."
But American Express Open and Momentum Worldwide realized all the education in the world wouldn't matter if attendees didn't know it was taking place in the midst of the massive CES show floor. So they sought a way to draw attendees to their far-from-behemoth 35-by-50-foot booth space. After exploring some tried-and-true traffic-building tactics, the team kept coming back to an age-old truth — that everyone likes free food. But rather than setting out a candy bowl and calling it a day, American Express Open let that free-food lure take the driver's seat in its exhibit program.
"There's this food truck trend that continues to attract a lot of attention throughout the country, but as far as we know, no one had ever actually brought a food truck onto the floor of a trade show," Koutsis says. "We thought it would be really unique to juxtapose all the technology at CES with a physical object like a food truck, and use the power of free food to attract a crowd."
If the food truck was in the driver's seat of its exhibit, then the education portion of American Express Open's strategy was a VIP passenger. Once attendees were lured into the space, Momentum Worldwide wanted to create a compelling experience that would teach them about American Express
Every trivia-game participant
received a free branded T-shirt.
Practice Makes Perfect
Attendees could hone their trivia skills in the exhibit's Practice Lounge before stepping up to the podium and answering questions in front of a crowd.
Open's products without overwhelming them with the particulars of annual percentage rates and cash-back programs.
Searching for a strategy to disseminate product info to its "tech-head" audience without force-feeding it to them, Koutsis determined the most effective vehicle for doing so would be gamification. American Express Open's target demographic at CES knew a thing or two about gaming, and was highly likely to get on board with the idea. Momentum Worldwide developed a digital version of "Memory" — a favorite game of preschoolers everywhere — and named it "Feed Your Business Brain," keeping with the booth's food-truck theme. And to attract players and appeal to attendees' competitive sides, game play would be incentivized, with prizes ranging from branded T-shirts and free food to iPad Minis.
Still, the "Feed Your Business Brain" game would only be an appetizer of education; the main course would be the company's three-part speaker series. But rather than hiring a pair of generic brand ambassadors to deliver thinly veiled product pitches, American Express Open sought industry stars to lead content-packed discussions in its exhibit. The company found two such speakers: Scott Case, the former chief technology officer of Priceline.com Inc. and current CEO of Startup America Partnership
Chris Anderson, who at the time was only one week removed from his role as editor-in-chief at Wired magazine, was chosen for his ability to speak to attendees from the vantage points of both an industry insider and a newly minted entrepreneur.
Win or Lose
After playing a round of the "Feed Your Business Brain" game in the Practice Lounge, attendees could play the real deal and vie for an iPad Mini. The person with the fastest time recorded each day won the coveted gadget, and the leader board reset each evening with the close of the show floor.
Read all About It
Attendees of former Wired magazine editor-in-chief Chris Anderson's sessions received a complimentary copy of his book, "Makers: The New Industrial Revolution," courtesy of American Express Open.
LLC, and Chris Anderson, the former editor-in-chief of Wired magazine.
"We're always trying to find speakers that are going to be most relevant to the people that are at these trade shows and events, and we looked at it from two different angles: 1) We wanted the content to be relatable to the small business owners that we're trying to reach, and 2) the speakers needed to be well-known enough to drive some heat," Kaplan says.
A Trip Down Eat Street
Attendees doing a drive-by of the CES show floor couldn't help but notice the 10-foot-long food truck occupying prime real estate in American Express Open's exhibit.
The truck, skinned with American Express Open's product messages, also bore the exhibit program's tagline, "Practice. Play. Learn. Eat." Not only did it clue attendees in as to the role of the uncommon booth accoutrement, but also the tagline let them know that getting a tasty treat wasn't as
"We thought it'd be really
unique to juxtapose all
the technology at CES
with a physical object like
a food truck, and use the
power of free food to attract
simple as just walking up to the truck. Overhead, a white fabric banner branded the space, while four attached, 8-foot-square signs in American Express Open's signature shade of blue read "Feed Your Business Brain."
Everything from candy bowls to cocktails is commonplace for in-booth catering, but this wasn't just another course of trade show hospitality. The food truck contained gourmet popcorn from Schiller Park, IL-based Popcorn Palace and miniature cupcakes from New York-based Baked by Melissa, both of which are American Express Open customers.
Tempted by the tasty treats, attendees wandered into American Express Open's exhibit only to discover there was a hitch to satisfying their sweet tooth. Instead of creating a dine-and-dash scenario, the company required that booth visitors successfully complete a round of the "Feed Your Business Brain" game in order to earn a voucher for treats from the truck. Attendees could sit on one of 10 benches in the exhibit's Practice Lounge, take a tablet, and try their hand at the game that tasked players with matching trivia about American Express Open's products. "The Practice Lounge gave attendees the opportunity to learn more, to try out their skills, and to prepare so they were in the best position possible to win the tablets that we gave away daily," Barefoot says.
But the fun and games didn't stop there: Adventurous attendees could take a turn at playing the game again — this time from a podium smack in the middle of American Express Open's exhibit. The lure? Free T-shirts and a chance to win an iPad Mini.
Momentum Worldwide enlisted a brand ambassador to serve as an emcee for the exhibit. He notified passersby of the "Feed Your Business Brain" game, snacks, and iPad Mini giveaway.
These days, food trucks are a fixture on the streets in many major cities. American Express Open brought the trend to the show floor, serving popcorn and cupcakes to hungry visitors.
The platform, situated against the back side of the food truck, featured a touchscreen console that live streamed what each player saw to three 46-inch plasma screens — one mounted on each side of the food truck, and the third in the front of the exhibit. Players had to match trivia about the benefits American Express Open offers with their corresponding products. Whereas the version of the game available in the Practice Lounge allowed attendees to play at their leisure, the podium version pitted players against the clock — and each other. The plasma screens mounted around the exhibit periodically scrolled to a leader board displaying the time it took each player who had stepped up to the podium to complete the matching game. At the end of each day, the player who recorded the fastest time won an iPad Mini and the leader board reset for the next day's competition. There was no limit on how many times an attendee could step up to the podium, and many chose to return later in the day and attempt to better their positions on the leader board or try again on subsequent days.
While the food-and-fun tactics kept traffic at a steady hum, on each of the first three days of the show American Express Open raised the excitement level by sliding the main podium to the side and shifting some of the Practice Lounge benches to transform its booth into a makeshift auditorium for its speaker series. With the food truck serving as a backdrop, Anderson and Case took turns discussing entrepreneurship and what the changing landscape of the tech industry means for small business owners. Attendees of Anderson's sessions received a free copy of his book, "Makers: The New Industrial Revolution," and both men answered attendees' questions after their sessions, offering advice on small-business operations.
The Sweet Spot
said, 'This is by far
the coolest thing
I've done here.'
That to me
means we were
Offering education didn't just make attendees smarter about running small-business operations; it created sweet results for American Express Open as well. Thousands of attendees played the game from the Practice Lounge, and 569 players stepped up to the main podium (some multiple times in an attempt to record the fastest time), altogether winning 518 gallons of popcorn, 3,800 miniature cupcakes, 1,600 branded T-shirts, and four iPad Minis. The program elicited 20 percent more card applications than American Express Open's goal for CES 2013, and resulted in a 27-percent increase over 2012's CES card-application figure.
Even more impressive than the game-participation and card-application stats was the success of American Express Open's speaker series; combined, more than 400 people attended Case and Anderson's sessions. And they didn't scatter immediately after the final round of applause, as is typical with in-booth presentations. "For at least 30 minutes following each presentation, the booth was full of people waiting to speak with them and ask questions about their presentations and American Express Open," Barefoot says Despite CES being a trade show known for its awe-inspiring electronics — not old-school food trucks and show-floor education — attendees were impressed. And Sizzle Awards judges were dazzled by the unique strategy, too. According to one judge, "When they said 'food truck,' I cringed a little. I thought it was going to be a scary mess. But this was well done and extremely well branded."
Attendees kept the positive chatter going on Twitter, generating 3.6 million total impressions. American Express Open garnered an estimated 1.5 million mentions through tweets using its handle (@OPENForum), and an additional 2.1 million impressions referring to its exhibit on the show floor. Although American Express Open didn't enter CES with any specific social-media goals, Barefoot was pleased with the buzz. "I think it's proof that the content and the speakers were relevant for the audience," she says.
Koutsis also measured the exhibit program's success based on attendee reaction. "Multiple people said, 'This is by far the coolest thing I've done here.' Not necessarily the coolest thing they've seen, but the coolest thing they got to do," he says. "That to me was rewarding, because it means we were successful in connecting with our audience."
Not only did visitors learn about tech trends, small-business strategies, and American Express Open's offerings, but also they were able to flex their competitive muscles and enjoy a treat in the process. The challenges small business owners often face can leave a sour taste in their mouths, but American Express Open drove home the message that its services can help them smartly navigate those obstacles, yielding sweeter results for everyone involved.