American Express Co. is entering partnerships that aggressively take aim at a very specific segment of spending: fare for taxis and other hired cars.
Amex's recent partnership with Uber, a popular ride-scheduling service, provides double reward points to Amex customers and lets those customers use their rewards to pay for future rides. This promotion strongly resembles one Amex did with the Isis mobile wallet, refunding half of a rider's fare to people who pay with a linked Amex Serve card.
"The primary rationale behind the Uber partnership is supporting existing card members that are using Uber today," says Dave Wolf, vice president of global product and business development at Amex. "Amex card members have spent hundreds of millions of dollars within the Uber service; our desire is to go where our card members are."
Consumers can, of course, pay with other cards in the Uber and Isis apps, so Amex needs to make itself the most appealing choice, says Rick Oglesby, senior analyst and consultant at Double Diamond Group.
"It's less about competing with the wallets and more about competing within the wallets," Oglesby says. "Amex has one of the strongest rewards programs in the business, which gives it great leverage to compete within third party wallets, using the rewards currency to incentivize consumers to pay with Amex."
Amex has time and time again shown the industry that it's willing to experiment to try and capture a less-affluent consumer base, which wasn't the company's original target.
During the Emerge conference in June, Amex reiterated its steps to altering its image by providing cheaper financial products to consumers who aren't part of the mainstream banking system.
Amex's Isis partnership has served it well. The prepaid Serve account is the default account for anyone who does not have a qualifying card with one of Isis' other issuing partners, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo. This arrangement turns the carriers behind the Isis wallet into a sales force for Amex as well.
Uber users fall into the younger consumer base which will grow up to be clients of Amex's core credit business, says Brian Riley, a research director at CEB TowerGroup.
"Uber is about as hot of a relationship you can get," Riley says. Amex "is intentionally getting out of its comfort zone and it's doing really really well with that and the partners it's made."
Card networks and traditional financial institutions spend a lot of time thinking about the reputational risks of initiatives and partnerships.
While Uber's legality in certain states remains unclear and its surge pricing model has received some backlash, the mobile transportation service "has a strong reputation as is evidenced by its growth curves in revenue, traffic and valuation," says Oglesby. "When the disruptive company is having success, the publicity around the challenges gets magnified."
Amex did evaluate the Uber on key points, such as its service experience and customer support, says Wolf. Mostly, Amex looks for companies that are relevant to consumers, he says.