Why American Express should shout about its bad news, not hide it

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A frequent flyer friend recently received an email regarding the American Express Platinum credit card. It includes some unpleasant news, but unless you’re the type that reads every word of every email, you’d probably miss it. That’s a mistake, because burying the bad news creates a backlash, now that everyone spreads news on social media.

Here’s the full text of the email. Can you spot the unpleasant news?

From: American Express
Date: March 2, 2017 at 10:18:48 AM EST
To: [Name redacted]
Subject: Important news about your Platinum Card Membership

Dear [name redacted]:

Thank you for being an American Express Card Member since [date redacted]. It is my pleasure to share with you some exciting news about upcoming enhancements to your Platinum Card®.

Since we launched the Platinum Card over 30 years ago, we’ve been on a mission to be the Card that provides unprecedented access to exclusive experiences, rich travel rewards and best-in-class service. Today we’re announcing the expansion of those benefits, providing you with more ways to experience the unparalleled service of Platinum, whether you’re at home or traveling abroad.

Beginning March 30th, enjoy the following new benefits added to your Card:

Uber Rides with Platinum. With your Platinum Card, you’ll receive $15 in Uber credits for U.S. rides every month plus a $20 bonus in December, delivered through an exclusive Uber app experience. That’s up to $200 for Uber rides annually.

You’ll also become an Uber VIP, where available, without meeting minimum ride requirements and be matched with top-rated drivers, so that even a 5-minute trip can be a 5-star experience.

5X Membership Rewards® points for prepaid hotels booked on amextravel.com. That’s in addition to the recently unveiled 5X points for flights when you book directly with airlines or American Express Travel.

An expansion of our Global Lounge Collection which unlocks access to more than 1,000 airport lounges across 120 countries and counting, including future Centurion Lounge locations in Hong Kong and Philadelphia opening later this year. Our unmatched worldwide coverage, featuring over 90 domestic lounges, is made possible through our own network, including The Centurion® Lounge and The International American Express lounges, as well as our partner networks, including Delta Sky Club® and Priority PassTM Select lounges. And beginning on March 30th, find a lounge on the go with your Amex® Mobile app by visiting the Membership section of your app and selecting Find a Lounge.

Complimentary Additional Gold Cards. You will be able to add Additional Gold Cards on your Platinum Card Account for no annual fee and existing Additional Gold Cards will also have no annual fee. You can earn Membership Rewards points on your Additional Card Member’s purchases the same way you do for yours.

Additionally, you will continue to receive all of the benefits you already enjoy with your Platinum Card, including up to $200 Airline Fee Credit for incidental fees like baggage on your selected airline each year, FINE HOTELS & RESORTS with valuable benefits like complimentary daily breakfast for two and guaranteed 4PM late checkout offering an average total value of $550; No Foreign Transaction Fees from American Express; and one Global Entry ($100) statement credit or one TSA Pre✓TM ($85) statement credit every 4 years for an application fee charged to your Platinum Card. You can always check out americanexpress.com/platinum for all of the details on your Card benefits.

You can begin enjoying your new Platinum Card benefits on March 30th, 2017. The Platinum Card will have a new annual fee of $550 and your annual fee will not change until your annual renewal date on or after [date redacted].

Wherever you go, you will continue to be backed by the service and security of American Express. And on March 30th, we will be making updates to the Amex® Mobile app to enhance the Platinum servicing experience even further. Be on the lookout for more information on all your new benefits in the coming weeks.

Thank you for your Card Membership.

Sincerely,

Denise Pickett
President
U.S. Consumer Services
Member Since 1992
All Card benefits are subject to terms and limitations. Visit americanexpress.com/platinumupdate for more details.

Amex buries the bad news

Did you spot the bad news? Don’t feel bad if you didn’t — it’s very hard to read overly promotional copy like this. It’s buried 80% of the way down this 600-word email. It’s the “new annual fee” of $550, which is a $100 increase.

Let’s deconstruct this carefully designed email from the point of view of the frequent traveler, who is the only type of person who will spend an annual fee of more than $400 for a credit card.

  • The subject line is easy to skip. “Important news about your Platinum Card Membership” is typical of unimportant marketing copy. Many people won’t open the email.
  • The opening 90 words are boilerplate marketing blather. They’re full of marketing weasel words like “exciting,” “enhancements,” “unprecedented,” “exclusive,” “rich,” and “unparalleled.” There must be a bin somewhere where they keep these adjectives and distribute them like lollipops to email marketers. The net effect of this passage is to numb you, so you don’t read what follows carefully.
  • The bulleted list appears to be the meaty half of the content. The frequent traveler is going to have some variation on the following reaction: “Uber, nah, I dumped those assholes; I never book hotels on Amex’s site; oh, more lounges that’s good; my husband left me since I travel so much, so I don’t care about an additional card.” In other words, quickly check down the list and see if any of these features matter to you.
  • You give up somewhere in the next 108 words of numbers and words you already knew. The next paragraph is a list of benefits that you knew about, that probably got you to sign up for the card in the first place, like reimbursing baggage and foreign transaction frees.

The rest of the email is paragraphs, so you figure it’s more useless stuff. Your eye is drawn to bullets and numbers, but there were so many numbers in the paragraph of existing benefits that you get fatigued.

It took me three passes through my friend’s email to realize that the annual fee — $550 — is the lead here. And I had to Google it to find out that it’s an increase from last year’s fee of $450. That’s the highest fee out there for a travel card.

And if you decide to be inquisitive and try to learn more, you’ll find the URL in the email, americanexpress.com/platinumupdate, is a broken link.

Why it’s a mistake to hide bad news

Here’s what’s going to happen to you if you have this card.

You’re probably going to miss the fee increase in the letter.

You might then notice news of the increase in article like this one and ask, “Is this worth it?”

Maybe you’ll see it on a post like this one from The Points Guy on Facebook, with 1000 reactions and over 300 comments, many quite negative.

Or maybe you won’t see it at all. Until one day your bill comes with a $550 annual fee. And you ask yourself, “Wasn’t that $450 last year? When did that change?”

In all of these cases, American Express has failed to take control of its own story. Rather than getting “Best-in-class service,” their customers are getting unpleasant surprises. Maybe you think the new benefits are worth it. Maybe you don’t. But since you didn’t actually get the chance to notice them ahead of time, you’re a lot more likely to feel resentful. And Amex is going to get a lot of calls from people switching to some other travel card out of pique.

In an alternate reality, the email might read like this

From: American Express
Subject: Your American Express Platinum fee is going up, but it’s worth it

Dear [Sucker]:

Yes, we’re increasing the annual fee for the American Express Platinum card from $450 to $550. And yes, that’s the most expensive travel card on the market. But we know that as a frequent traveler, you’ll do almost anything for new benefits. They cost a little extra, but isn’t it worth it to you?

Here’s what you’ll get:

$15 in monthly Uber credits. If you haven’t dumped Uber yet, you might like this. Warning: if you don’t use these credits, they go away every month.

5X Membership Rewards® points for prepaid hotels booked on amextravel.com. Your plans probably change so much that you don’t book prepaid hotels. But if you do, use our site for more points.

1000 more lounges worldwide. Never wait with the hoi polloi again.

Complimentary Additional Gold Cards. Let your loved ones spend your money and accumulate points for you — it’s the least you can do since you’re never home.

The same stuff you already get. Don’t worry about baggage fees (until you rack up $200 worth, which you’ll probably do in a couple of months). No foreign transaction fees (that’s worth about $5 a month). We pay your Global Entry fee. Do all those fees add up to $550 a year? If they do, that means you’re never sleeping at home.

Travel is suffering. We let you pay more to suffer a little less.

Sincerely,

Denise Pickett

If Amex wanted to be honest, it would write this way. Nobody would be surprised or feel ripped off. If the card is worth $550, prove it. If not, why are you hiding the fee?

10 responses to “Why American Express should shout about its bad news, not hide it

  1. I received that very same letter and completely missed the increase to $550! Thanks for the heads up and the dissection. AE’s value proposition on the platinum card just fell through the floor for me.

  2. Josh, I really wanted to share this post with my marketing department. Your deconstruction of the Amex email and why it’s bad is spot on. But when you get to the “alternate reality” email, you lose me. I can’t forward it to my colleagues with all that snark in there. I think you’d get more viral traction with this post if you instead included what a real-world marketing email set to deliver the annual fee increase news more directly would look like.

    I love your work and your book. I want to help spread your content because there’s too much bullshit in business writing today. Please, help me help you.

    1. I agree – I’m not a marketer but I am genuinely interested in how Amex should deliver the bad news without snark.

      1. Isn’t the structure spot on though, despite snark?
        Be up front about what’s changing, follow that up with the additional value gained from the increase. Justify it as best you can AFTER making them aware.
        Then end on a positive.
        Your customers are informed and as happy as they can be despite the bad news.
        Amex turned this structure on it’s head. The fact they have one sentence dedicated to the increase is shocking.

  3. Thanks a lot, Josh.

    You have taught me a valuable lesson of marketing, that I have never been charged, by the way :). I laughed so much that I will certainly tink twice before I “trash” your unopen post. You created your own marketing “color” in my mind.

    Best Regards, Jeff

  4. Dear American Express:

    Consumers CAN leave home without you – or at least without your Platinum Card. At $550/year, I think a lot more of us will start to do so.

  5. AND IT IS NOT A MISTAKE TO HIDE THE GOOD NEWS ?!!

    Why didn’t you talk about the Global Lounge? That is the main draw for the platinum card holders. In the passing, you mention you travel so much that you got divorced from your husband. Wait a minute, you are enjoyiing the Lounges one trip at a time- so many times a year- and you don’t put a value on it? Do you have a substiute for it ? Can you go to an airport and say I want a place to relax at a private lounge by the departure gate ? How much is that really worth to you if there were some magical independently-operated private lounges, for which you could pay and enter ? Are you miserable that you are divorced or the fact that you don’t have anyone to share life with and for whom would love to get an extra card?

    Here is a part of what you said:

    ” oh, more lounges that’s good; my husband left me since I travel so much, so I don’t care about an additional card.” In other words, quickly check down the list and see if any of these features matter to you.”

    What is your name if you are a she ? Are you hiding your name ? I shouldn’t have to scroll 10 times and not find your name up top or at the bottom anywhere. Oh, who the hell is Josh that everyone is thanking in their comments ? If it is you, I don’t know a woman by the name JOSH. Come on, you give to the term “without bullshit” a new meaning ! I am not not ging to say more than this…. Miserable or with a motive, I cannot be the judge of that.

    P.S. the rate increase is in the e-mail , and not in fine print. Did you want American Express to announce the rate increase in the first line of the e-mail- Would you do that in your own buiness if you had or have any ?

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