Great brand publishing doesn’t happen overnight—it’s a process that has a beginning, middle, and end. Contently Case Stories is a series highlighting some of Contently’s most successful clients, and telling the stories of how we worked together to produce great content and great business results.
Having a content strategy that works is amazing enough, but creating a national holiday? That puts you in another marketing league altogether.
Yet this is exactly what American Express accomplished when they launched “Small Business Saturday,” a yearly campaign that encourages consumers to shop at local small businesses. Founded in 2010, the event takes place on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and this year it will be held on November 29.
Unlike other post-Thanksgiving sales events such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday, Small Business Saturday shifts the focus away from large retailers and instead highlights three things: small businesses, their neighborhoods, and their loyal customers.
This comprehensive approach has had an impact. Last year, approximately $5.7 billion was spent on small businesses on Small Business Saturday. So far, the campaign has reached 3.38 million likes on Facebook.
While it might not be a holiday in the strictest sense, a growing number of governors, senators, city officials, and non-profit groups have been showing their support of the movement. Even President Obama has been known to shop at local bookstores on Small Business Saturday. Plus, the campaign is starting to go international: It inspired a similar event in the U.K. last year, which American Express actively supports.
This year, however, American Express is doing something extra to bring the message to life—they’re producing longer, richer content through Local Business Stories.
Creating an immersive, personal storytelling experience
Hosted on OPEN Forum, American Express’ online community for small business owners, Local Business Stories are immersive, multimedia narratives featuring small businesses that have made an impact in their community. Each story is almost 2,000 words long, accompanied with large photos and high quality video. The stories are also responsive, making them look good across different mobile displays.
So far, two business stories are live: “Strictly Bicycles From Fort Lee, New Jersey” and “Duke & Winston from Philadelphia.”
These longform features seem like a natural extension of the brand, given that American Express has had almost a century of experience as a brand publisher. “This series came about as we were thinking about how to bring Small Business Saturday to life on OPEN Forum,” said Carrie Parker, OPEN Forum’s director. “Small businesses are the fabric of local communities and while shopping is an important element of Small Business Saturday, the day is also about celebrating the local small business owners.”
Sharing business stories is nothing new in OPEN Forum, which already contains myriad blog posts covering different small businesses all over the country. What makes Local Business Stories different is that it gives the reader a chance to dig deeper. “We wanted to use the community element as a theme tying the series together, and focus the content on the impact these businesses have had,” explained Parker. “We regularly feature small business stories on OPEN Forum, but with Local Business Stories, we created an immersive story-telling experience to delve into the business owners’ journeys and their deeply personal stories. “
To produce these stories, American Express looked for businesses that they already had a relationship with, either as an American Express merchant or a Small Business Saturday participant. According to Parker, the challenge was picking only four businesses to feature, given that American Express has relationships with businesses owners all over the country that have compelling stories to share. “Once we identified the businesses, we had our writers work with them to uncover their stories—how they grew, what adversity they faced, and what they felt was important to share with others.”
(Full disclosure: Contently’s talent team provided American Express with journalists, photographers, and videographers for the Local Business Stories features.)
“Every business owner deals with challenges in running and growing their business. We wanted the challenges of running a business to come through in these narratives along with the lessons learned along the way,” Parker added. “Ultimately, we want readers to be inspired and learn from the business advice shared in these stories. “
Telling stories that build an audience
Though only two of the four stories have been published so far, OPEN Forum’s audience is already responding to the content. “While it is early, we are already seeing higher engagement including more return visits and nearly double the time on site from a typical article,” said Parker.
Parker also added that this new approach is just one part of OPEN Forum’s journey as they become more innovative with their content and grow their audience of millions of small business owners.
“At the end of the day, our goal is to deliver valuable information to business owners looking to grow their business,” she said. “The longform format of Local Business Stories gives us a new opportunity to engage with business owners. and we are excited about continuing to explore new storytelling approaches like we do with this series.“
Invest in your customers’ stories
What we can learn from Local Business Stories? For starters, a sound content strategy doesn’t mean simply broadcasting your company’s stories to an audience. Instead, it also pays off to invest the time and effort in looking for the stories that already exist within the communities your company serves—the stories that resonate with people in a personal way.
By turning our attention to the struggles and achievements of small business owners, American Express has shown that their own brand doesn’t have to be in the spotlight to gain loyalty. Given all the planning and thought they put into Local Business Stories and the rest of the OPEN Forum content, every day might as well be Small Business Saturday.Image by American Express
American Express' focus on the small-business community is paying off: the "Small Business Gets an Official Day" campaign by CP&B and Digitas won the first two Grand Prix -- one in the Direct category, another in the promo & activation category -- at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity .
It's not a new campaign, but it's one that 's been steadily building a lot of momentum on the awards circuit. AmEx launched "Small Business Saturday " in 2010 and last year at Cannes work for the campaign was shortlisted in a range of categories. It has done well at the Clios and this past May won the top prize at the New York festivals.The campaign, in which AmEx invented a shopping holiday for American small businesses during the all-important Thanksgiving weekend -- a period that had previously only been a big event for national retailers and big-box stores -- was lauded for rallying both business owners and public officials, after U.S. President Barack Obama participated in it, taking his daughters to a bookstore near the White House.
"It's not every day that President Obama will say 'Yes We Can' for an advertising campaign," said direct jury chair Gideon Amichay.
The campaign brought much needed business to proprietors hit hard in the economic downturn -- one business owner in CPB and Digitas' admittedly heart-wrenching entry video reported year-over-year sales more than doubled. Congress later officially designated the Saturday after Thanksgiving "Small Business Saturday " for years to come.
"This is a great example of something that 's not temporary," Mr. Amichay added. "We're very proud that a marketing thing can change society. In 10 years, it'll still be here."
For MDC Partners-owned CP&B, this year's win of the promo & activation Grand Prix represents a repeat of its 2006 win of the Grand Prix in this category for its "Fast" campaign for Volkswagen. The win this year brings the category's Grand Prix back to the U.S. after Romania was the big winner last year. Romanian shop BV McCann took home a pair of Grands Prix prizes in the promo/activation and direct categories for its "American Rom" campaign for client Kandia Dulce.
Though maybe not as sexy as categories such as cyber and film, the promo and activation Lions have been steadily building interest among agencies and saw a significant spike in entries in 2012. There were 2,674 entries, up 26% from last year. Over the past five years, the numbers of entries have more than doubled; in 2008 there were 1,103. Entries were also up in the direct category.
Interestingly, for AmEx, the win a top award at Cannes comes as the marketer is currently conducting a creative review on its Open business, as Ad Age reported earlier this year.
WHAT IT IS: To help shoppers turn to smaller, Main Street businesses during the shopping rush ahead of the holiday season in the U.S., AmEx gave small businesses around America a digital toolkit to help them participate in its Small Business Saturday , held the weekend after Thanksgiving, with instructions on how to build special Facebook pages, YouTube video ads and Foursquare deals.
THE JURIES: Nick Worthington, creative chairman at Colenso BBDO in Auckland, New Zealand, chaired the promo & activation jury, which had representation from another 20 or so countries, including Mexico, Russia, Germany, Brazil, India and France. Besides Mr. Worthington, only Damon Crepin-Burr of French agency Fullsix Group and Steve Coll, who serves as executive creative director at EuroRSCG in Australia, were vocal during the press conference.
The direct jury was chaired by Mr. Amichay, joint managing partner of Shalmor Avnon Amichay / Y&R Interactive Tel Aviv. He was joined by jurors from such countries as India, France, China and Japan. The jury included two Americans: Tim Geoghegan, former creative director of BBH New York's ZAG who has since launched brand consultancy Timmonvations; and Alfonso Marian, chief creative officer for Ogilvy One. Jury members said they believe AmEx idea could work in a range of countries, since so many are struggling economically and since small businesses exist everywhere.
WHY IT WON: At the press conference discussing the awards on Monday morning, most promo & activation jury members seemed to agree that Amex's ability to create a day branded in its honor was an achievement that any brand would covet. They also took into account that AmEx and its agencies managed to convince consumers to spend money with local businesses owners as the economy is still recovering and many folks are still more cautious and tightfisted with their disposable income than they were several years ago. Given that the category is about activating an idea so consumers will act on it, results and effectiveness were given a lot of weight in the judging process. The case study that CP&B and Digitas put together was thorough, showing small-business owners testifying to double-digit sales as a result of Small Business Saturday , and explaining the involvement of government in backing the idea. The case study touted the fact that even U.S. President Barack Obama tweeted about Small Business Saturday , which seemed to impress the jury.
WHY THE DIRECT WIN IS DIFFERENT THAN THE PROMO WIN: The direct category is essentially about marketers building relationships, so the jury celebrated the effort for fostering relationships on so many fronts: the credit-card company provided tools and needed traffic to its small-business customers and provided incentives to its cardholders and also strengthened the relationship between those mom-and-pop stores and their own customers, too.
Mr. Amichay opened the press conference by critiquing the industry's very use of the word "consumers."
"They are people, not consumers," he said. "It's about time we deleted this idea that they're people with wallets. So many companies are trying to build a different dialog and relationship. That's a good sign."
CONTROVERSY OR CLEAR WINNER: In the direct category, the decision to pick AmEx's campaign for the direct Grand Prix was nearly unanimous, with 20 of the two dozen jurors giving it their votes. According to promo & activation jury chair Mr. Worthington, about eight campaigns were seriously in consideration for the Grand Prix at different points during the deliberation process; in the end, it didn't seem an unanimous decision to hand the Grand Prix to the Amex campaign. The difficulty is that unlike other categories such as press or outdoor that are limited to a single medium, work entered into promo & activation can be anything from a digital-couponing campaign to an out-of -home stunt, which made the debate pretty vigorous at times, the jurors said. In the end, it was the scale and sustained growth of the Small Business Saturday idea that put this one over the top. "The more we talked about it, the more we fell in love with it," noted Mr. Worthington.
TOTAL NUMBER OF LIONS AWARDED: In promo & activation, 86 trophies were handed out. In addition to the Grand Prix, there were 17 Gold Lions, 26 Silver Lions, and 43 Bronze Lions. Meanwhile, the direct jury awarded 15 gold Lions, 25 silver and 45 bronze.
WHO ELSE DID WELL? In the promo & activation category, one other campaign was repeatedly singled out for being a brilliant idea -- and to everyone's surprise, it was an annual report for a solar-power company. The execution, for Austria Solar by agency ServicePlan in Munich, Germany, was a great example of engaging content that was totally on-brand since the ink would only show up to read the report if you took it out into the sun. While the judges were enamored with the work, they ultimately awarded it only a Bronze Lion; they felt it wasn't quite appropriate to win a Gold or a Grand Prix in the activation category. Although it forced an action, it wasn't consumer facing and didn't lead to any sales results for the company. The jury seemed hopeful that the campaign might do well in the design Lions. As an agency, Colenso BBDO (the firm from which the jury president hails) seemed to do well, taking home two Gold Lions and two Silver Lions for work for Pedigree and a local brewery. Belgium's Duval Guillaume Modem, based in Antwerp, did well, too, taking home a trio of Gold Lions, two of which were for the "Push to Add Drama" stunt it rigged on a small Belgian town. You can see that on Creativity Online if you're not familiar with it.
In the Direct category, the jury called out gold winners "Mini Maps" for the BMW car brand from DDB Paris and Coca-Cola's Polar Bowl from Wieden & Kennedy Portland for the campaign that found the brand's iconic mascots commentating on Facebook during the Super Bowl this year. Social media was a big part of many of the top winners, however Mr. Amichay cautioned that honoring these platforms in a category open to any media -- from outdoor to TV to flat mail -- was not about buzz words, but new tools to engage people in better ways.
WHAT THEY DIDN'T LIKE: A number of this year's promo & activation entries related to vending machines, but Mr. Worthington said quite firmly, "I think that 's a passing trend" -- suggesting he wasn't so impressed with those entries and doesn't expect vending-machine-related projects to be considered standout entries in this category in the future.
LOOKING TO NEXT YEAR: By choosing a campaign that wasn't just a one-off and has had some sustained momentum, the jury seemed to be making a statement about work that has the power to go beyond its initial conception and become something bigger, something embedded into popular culture. They want to see lasting effects, and a campaign that has impact broadly, not just on a small subset of consumers. "Over the next few years, we're going to see many more these types of ideas in this category," said Australia's Mr. Coll.