American Express Open, the small-business division of American Express Co., takes a reality-show-style competition to two events in vastly different industries, boosting card applications and generating nearly 5 million potential social-media impressions.
Competition feeds the marketplace; it filters out businesses that thrive from those that fail. And while many exhibit managers resent having their biggest competitor only a few feet down the aisle, that density of competition is what fuels the frenzy on the trade show floor.
It's paradoxical then, that American Express Open, the small-business division of American Express Co., exhibits solely at trade shows where it has no real competitors. In fact, it exhibits at more than 250 trade shows annually, all of which fall outside of its industry, and has been doing so for nearly a decade.
The reasoning behind this atypical exhibiting strategy is simple: American Express Open's competitors may not be at these trade shows, but the company's target audience is. And those small-business owners in attendance are actively focused on growing their businesses during the shows, whether that means making connections with suppliers, buying stock for the coming season, or learning about emerging trends in their industry.
American Express Open's biggest exhibiting advantage is also its biggest challenge. As a nonendemic brand, the credit card company doesn't have to face off against its direct competitors for attendees' attention on the trade show floor. It does, however, have to justify its presence at any given show. "The big thing for us is having a reason for being there," says Nicole Kaplan, senior vice president, group director, at Momentum Worldwide, a New York-based marketing agency charged with developing American Express Open's exhibit program. "We need to be relevant to the people who are going to walk by the booth." So for every unconventional event on its annual trade show calendar, American Express Open has to come up with a way to stand out while also fitting in.
Out of its League
Given its underdog status, American Express Open knew it would have to rely on more than name recognition to thrive at any show it attended. Thus, the cornerstone to success for the "little fish in a big pond" situation was to drive traffic to the booth. After all, its end goal was to tally a 10-percent year-over-year increase in the number of on-the-spot card applications at each show it attended. So with the aid of Momentum Worldwide, American Express Open settled on a traffic builder that it hoped would attract small-business owners with a magnetic force.
Citing the popularity of reality-show competitions such as "The Voice" and "Project Runway," American Express Open and Momentum Worldwide conceived the idea of a live competition on the show floor as a potent means of driving traffic to the exhibit. But the duo was wary of attendees perceiving an in-exhibit competition as yet another corporate gimmick. So to prevent a been-there-seen-that reaction from passersby, American Express Open knew its traffic builder would need to fulfill a critical requirement – it had to put the small-business owner front and center. And with that, the Rising Stars platform was born.
The Rising Stars idea emerged out of a single-show competition called the Rising Stars of SEMA, which American Express Open had staged in its exhibit at the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) show in 2011 and 2012. In that competition, three up-and-coming airbrush artists were tasked with adorning a blank car over the course of a three-and-a-half-day period while show goers peppered them with questions. SEMA, the go-to show for the aftermarket automotive parts industry, also has a reputation for having a flashy, busy show floor. But by generating exposure for the industry's emerging artists, and providing the means for attendees to interact with those "Rising Stars," American Express Open had been able to break through the trade show's bountiful distractions and connect with small-business owners in attendance.
Momentum Worldwide quickly realized that this type of competition didn't have to be relegated to just SEMA, or even a single industry. "What's beautiful about this concept is that no matter what industry the show serves, the one consistent component is that people are looking to showcase their goods," Kaplan says.
Combing through American Express Open's extensive annual trade show calendar, Momentum Worldwide landed on another show where top-notch fabrication skills abound: Magic Market Week. Sometimes described as "the fashion week before fashion week" because it's where department-store buyers, boutique owners, and everyone in between goes to see what's hot for the upcoming season, it's a show where, like SEMA, a majority of attendees understand and appreciate good design and craftsmanship. Despite being seemingly unrelated at first glance, Magic Market Week and SEMA also had another common thread: Both shows are transaction and product oriented, with very few exhibitors focused on interacting and engaging with attendees. "We didn't see anyone bringing the making and doing side of what small-business owners do 365 days a year to the trade show floor," says Phil Koutsis, vice president, group creative director at Momentum Worldwide.
The Rising Stars platform would fill that interaction void, and its premise would be simple: pit three artists (who also happen to be small-business owners) against one another in a design competition. Plus, the competition strategy would not only benefit American Express Open, but also afford an otherwise unattainable opportunity to each industry's up-and-coming talent. "In giving over some of our real estate to them as they compete in this live design competition, they get noticed, they build their brand, they get to be somewhere they couldn't necessarily be otherwise. Furthermore, by virtue of the campaign we're living and breathing our mission, which therefore makes a nonendemic brand instantly relevant," Koutsis says.
Staying relevant would also mean adapting the Rising Stars theme to suit different audiences and industries. The iterations of the platform at SEMA and Magic Market Week weren't intended to be carbon copies of one another, but rather variations on a theme. The Rising Stars of SEMA: Street Art Edition would follow roughly the same format as it had the two previous years, with airbrush artists having three and a half days to paint custom car hoods. The Rising Stars of Fashion would task designers with conceptualizing, sketching, and sewing a handbag in two and a half days' time. Both competitions would be judged by panels that would include industry influencers and American Express Open reps. And with those mandates set, the next order of business was to find emerging handbag designers and airbrush artists who fit the bill.
Since Momentum Worldwide was searching for emerging, not established, artists, finding competitors would prove more difficult than simply conducting a few Google searches. First, the agency issued a far-flung casting call and worked with automotive and fashion industry connections to source a large pool of emerging artists who met a set of stringent criteria – it was searching for artists who were early in their careers, were proprietors of their own small businesses, and weren't yet on their industry's main stage. "If someone's already making it, we don't want to give them a bigger stage because this is about shining a light on the emerging talent that's going to shift an industry," Koutsis says. "We want to be a brand that a future superstar points to and says, 'American Express Open helped me get to where I am today.'"
Next, Momentum Worldwide sifted through the list, assessing artists' design aesthetics, social-media presence, and accomplishments. After further vetting, phone interviews provided an opportunity to get a feel for possible competitors' personalities and composure. For the Rising Stars of Fashion, that filtering process involved eliminating designers who didn't also fabricate their designs. Some designers only sketch, Koutsis explains, but the agency needed artists who could also cut and sew.
Once the contestant list for each competition was narrowed down to a handful of contenders, Momentum Worldwide staff asked them the most important question: Would they be able to complete the design challenge in the time allotted? With only two and a half days to sew a handbag or three and a half days to paint a blank car hood (projects that usually take twice that time), competing in the Rising Stars challenge would likely be the most difficult task that the artists had faced thus far in their careers. For the handbag designers and airbrush artists that made the final cut, it would also represent their biggest opportunity to date as small-business owners.
At the conclusion of the extensive vetting process, Mary Lai, Aimee Kestenberg, and Kristine Gottilla were selected to compete in the Rising Stars of Fashion challenge at Magic Market Week. Once they were notified, the designers got to work sketching handbags and sourcing materials that complemented the "Retro Proven Newness" theme. Momentum Worldwide assisted in this process by tracking down hard-to-find items and defraying some of the costs. Designers were also tasked with promoting the Rising Stars competition through their personal social-media channels (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) and blogs.
In addition, American Express Open selected Lottie Oakley, the former publisher of Vogue magazine, as an emcee for the competition and as a de facto fashion consultant. Oakley also wrote a blog post for Open Forum, American Express Open's online community for small-business owners. "When we were looking for talent who would have a natural relationship with the brand, who would be a good reflection of the brand, and who would bring a big following to the brand, Oakley really fit the bill. And the thing we love about her is that's she's actually a small-business owner and proud Open card member, so she is truly everything wrapped into one," Kaplan says.
When Magic Market Week began in August 2013, American Express Open employed push notifications and loudspeaker announcements during the show to drive traffic to and awareness of its in-booth competition. Automated text messages were sent once a day and to notify attendees when American Express Open was about to announce the winner of the competition, while loudspeaker announcements were made periodically. The timing of these promotions was carefully calculated, Kaplan says, because American Express Open is vigilant not to inundate its target market with messaging.
While all of the handbag designers had completed some prep work beforehand, the show floor was where the real action took place. Each designer had her own 8-by-8-foot studio on one end of American Express Open's 20-by-30-foot exhibit, outfitted with an industrial sewing machine, cutting mat, and all the notions and accessories she'd need to complete her handbag. The back wall of each space also had a tack board where designers could pin up their sketches, photos of their inspiration, and swatches of the materials they would be using. In front of the designers' workstations were four waist-high kiosks. Here, attendees could scroll through the designers' bios and find out more about their fashion backgrounds and fledgling handbag lines. And when attendees input their names and email addresses into the kiosks, they were entered in a drawing to win one of the finished handbags or the grand prize – a trip to Fashion Week in New York.
As the designers toiled over their bags, Oakley informed passersby of what was going on in the booth, and how they could enter to win one of the finished creations. She also conducted "Talk Shop" interviews with the designers periodically throughout the show, asking them about their progress in the competition, their handbag lines, their fashion careers thus far, and more. Attendees asked the designers questions, too, which Kaplan says compounded the time crunch of the competition. "They had a limited amount of time as it was, but were so excited about being there that they wanted to take time to talk to everyone that stopped by, and their enthusiasm spilled over to the people they were talking with," she says.
Attendees dropped by American Express Open's booth throughout Magic Market Week – checking on the designers' progress and striking up conversations with them – and booth staffers capitalized on these repeat visits to initiate discussions about its charge cards. Conversations centered on attendees' small-business needs and what financial tools could help them do their jobs better, and typically concluded with staffers encouraging interested attendees to apply for a card right in American Express Open's booth. Bethany Barefoot, director of trade shows and field sales at American Express Co., says that her team has been trained to listen to attendees describe their small businesses and recommend products accordingly, a strategy that echoed the attendee-centric nature of the entire exhibit program.
After three days of "Project Runway"-style speed sewing, designers stitched the final seam and affixed the final crystal. Members of the judging panel evaluated each bag separately, and then convened to tabulate the cumulative score. The judges chose Mary Lai's Mod-inspired, animal print bag as the winner, and she was presented with a small trophy to commemorate the victory. But she wasn't the only one who walked away feeling like a winner: All three designers touted the Rising Stars competition as a tremendous career-building opportunity that helped them boost awareness of their handbag lines just as much as it helped American Express Open drive traffic to its exhibit.
Trading Fashion for Function
Three months later, the Rising Stars of SEMA: Street Art Edition hit the trade show floor. Here, American Express Open tasked three relatively unknown airbrush artists – Kristian Baena, Rod Fuchs, and Chris Dunlop – with transforming a blank car hood into a painted masterpiece in three and a half days while attendees gawked. A stage spanning the width of the 20-by-30-foot outdoor exhibit space was divided into thirds to create workstations for the artists, and each station was complete with an easel to hold the hood upright and a cabinet that contained paint and supplies. Kiosks where attendees could enter to win one of the completed masterpieces and placards with brief bios of each competitor flanked the space.
Unlike the Rising Stars of Fashion, artists didn't have to adhere to a predetermined theme, but they were asked to incorporate the Rising Stars logo into their finished artwork. Koutsis says the reasoning behind this directive was twofold: 1) Attendees would be photographing the hoods throughout the show (and subsequently sharing those images on social media) and 2) attendees who won the car hoods would hang them in their shops or man caves, and in both instances, the Rising Stars logo would be front and center.
Just like at Magic Market Week, SEMA attendees visited American Express Open's booth multiple times to check the artists' progress in the competition. And once again, booth staffers capitalized on those repeat visits to strike up conversations with attendees about becoming card members. But here, American Express Open had one more tool to stop attendees in their tracks. Four "graffiti hoods" – blank car hoods identical to the ones on stage – were scattered around the exhibit, and staffers invited passing attendees to use a kaleidoscope of Sharpies to "tag" one with their signatures. Koutsis explains that the simple activity was designed to give attendees a chance to interact with American Express Open and for staffers to begin conversations about its products – the type of engagement that's rare in SEMA exhibits.
At the conclusion of the three-and-a half-day work period, the artists had finished their masterpieces. The judging operated under the same procedural guidelines that it had for the Rising Stars of Fashion, with each panel member evaluating the work separately, and the artist whose hood had the highest cumulative score winning. But the prize of publicity didn't just extend to the winner, Kristian Baena. Both nonwinning competitors also felt the media love from bloggers and journalists who covered the show.
Rising Stars competitors walked away with new business contacts and some hard-earned publicity, but American Express Open took home some serious brand-building booty as well. At Magic Market Week, the company recorded a 14-percent uptick in card applications over the 2012 show, exceeding its goal by 4 percent. And at SEMA, it achieved a 30-percent increase in card applications over the previous year, which was three times its pre-show goal of a 10-percent boost. Plus, the two shows generated an average of nearly 2.5 million potential social-media impressions each.
SEMA attendees got in on the action by "tagging" four "graffiti hoods" with colored Sharpies.
Ultimately, placing the small-business owners it serves – rather than itself – at the center of its exhibit program paid off for American Express Open. "That ethos of really focusing on the customer helped us achieve greater success than we would have on our own," Barefoot says. Sizzle Awards judges, who were impressed not only by the platform's remarkable results, but also by its customer-first directive, echoed that sentiment. "This sort of grass-roots campaign was a great way for American Express Open to take a little shine off its corporate luster," one judge said. "It doesn't feel slick and corporate. It feels real and authentic, and that's exactly the vibe small-business owners are looking for."
That grass-roots aura was central to the Rising Stars platform's success on all fronts. Attendees got an authentic exhibit experience that put small-business owners just like them in the limelight. Rising Stars competitors had the opportunity of a lifetime to show off their talent at their respective industries' biggest annual events. And American Express Open zeroed in on a successful traffic builder that it can modify and expound upon at future shows. Its competitors may not have shown up at Magic Market Week and SEMA, but the credit card company didn't let the one-sided playing field hamper its exhibiting game. Rather, American Express Open brought the competition along, and all parties involved emerged as winners.