American Express has been inching its way downmarket through a series of partnerships with companies involved in social media and online games. Its latest move may be its biggest yet — Amex is paying cardholders for playing and completing the latest installment in the massively popular Halo video game series.
The Halo series has sold 46 million games prior to the Nov. 6 release of Halo 4 (which is actually the seventh game in the series). Halo 4 sells for $60, and Amex is offering more than half of that price back in statement credits to people who link their Amex accounts to their Xbox accounts and then complete the game.
Many Xbox owners are not only outside the image of the elite Amex cardholder but possibly outside the reach of many banks. Microsoft's game console is built to accommodate the underbanked — its Xbox Live membership and Microsoft Points, both of which are necessary to buy and play games online, can be found abundantly in stores hanging from pegs much like prepaid cards.
“We’ve kept our eye on interactive entertainment as a significant space for our cardmembers,” says Brad Minor, vice president of digital communications strategy at Amex.
Amex launched a similar program in May with Zynga, which makes the popular Facebook game FarmVille. The partnership provided a way to link real-world spending with virtual rewards, by offering in-game incentives for people to sign up for and use Amex’ Serve digital wallet.
"In FarmVille alone, the Zynga Serve Rewards Program resulted in 2.1 million Serve Money Trees placed in FarmVille and over 700,000 "likes" on Facebook,” says Charlotte Fuller, director of corporate affairs and communication at Amex.
Planting a Money Tree in FarmVille was the first step to players opening and funding a Serve account, which in turn provides rewards that can be used within the game. Because of the success Amex has seen with FarmVille, it also launched programs with three additional Zynga games: CityVille, CastleVille and Zynga Poker.
“The launch and subsequent expansion of the Zynga Serve Rewards Program underscores Serve's commitment to growing its reach to support customers wherever they choose to engage in commerce,” Fuller says.
The Xbox partnership made sense for Amex because “when we looked at our cardmember base, we found that Xbox Live is a platform they are highly engaged in,” Minor says.
But even though many Amex cardholders may be Xbox owners, the reaction to the Amex promotion indicates that many Xbox owners are not Amex's customers.
A discussion on the game news site GameSpot highlights some of this disconnect. A few readers posted comments protesting the exclusion of prepaid cards, particularly since Amex's Xbox offer comes on the heels of the nationwide launch of its heavily promoted Walmart Bluebird prepaid card.
The exclusion of prepaid is especially striking given that the FarmVille promotion focused on Serve, which is connected to a stored-value account.
Wanda Meloni, founder and senior analyst at M2 Research in Encinitas, Calif., says prepaid was most likely excluded because of possible limitations of what Amex calls its Card Sync technology, which connects Amex cards to gamers' Xbox Live accounts.
Some GameSpot readers identified as Amex cardholders and considered the promotion to be free money, whereas others posted comments indicating a perception that Amex cards are too expensive to be worth owning even given the ability to quickly make $35 in statement credits.
A GameSpot reader who uses the screenname “tightwad34” summed up the tone of the conversation by stating, “this is one of the strangest incentives to get a credit card.”
Amex is offering an initial $10 statement credit to players who link their Xbox accounts to their Amex accounts. Upon completing the single-player portion of Halo 4 on normal or higher difficulty, players earn an additional $25 statement credit. Under certain conditions, players can also win a trip to the 2013 Electronic Entertainment Expo.
This system allows players to “earn real-world value for online play,” Minor says.
Overall the promotion is valuable to those who are eligible to take advantage of it, says Dave Kaminsky, an analyst with Mercator Advisory Group.
“It’s a unique way [for Amex] to interact with gamers and increase their brand,” Kaminsky says. “It’s a form of marketing that’s associated with something [gamers] really care about; Halo gamers are very dedicated to Halo.”
In June, after a positive pilot in Austin, Texas, Amex and FourSquare launched their check-in promotion nationwide. With the partnership, cardholders can use the FourSquare social network to check-in at specific merchants, pay with their Amex cards and receive a credit on their monthly statements.
Amex's Facebook partnership offers deals for cardholders based on their Facebook “Likes” and interests. Through Twitter, Amex cardholders can post messages with special codes (called “hashtags” among Twitter users) to receive rewards.
All of these partnerships allow consumers to receive rewards on their statements instead of printing out coupons.
“We’re focused on going where our cardmembers are in order to deliver valuable and relevant card-linked content, offers and experiences,” Minor says.
Meloni says it’s a brilliant play, since consumers spend a great deal of time on social media and games, especially the Halo franchise.
“Games are the hot trigger,” she says. “If you tap into that while they’re playing and provide rewards then consumers feel they’re getting value. They don’t feel like they’re getting tricked or manipulated in any way.”
Although Amex is reaching out to a demographic not usually hit by its traditional marketing, Meloni says the card company could be advertising to individuals too young to have an Amex card.
Despite its Mature rating from the Entertainment Software Rating Board, indicating Halo 4 is most appropriate for consumers 17 years old and up, “Halo tends to skew even a bit younger than a lot of people think, especially with boys” says Meloni, mother of a 9 and 13-year-old boy. Among 8 to 15-year-old boys, Halo is their second favorite game, only eclipsed by the Call of Duty war games.
“But with 46 million copies sold, even if [Amex] starts off capturing 1%, that’s still a good number,” Meloni says.
At least Amex is marketing to gamers with a bit more grace than other companies have, Kaminsky says.
For example, a Halo 4 tie-in version of Mountain Dew and Doritos snacks drew a degree of mockery for its absurdity.
“We worked really hard to create a powerful user experience that felt intuitive to the Xbox Live environment,” Minor says.