I can remember when American Express was the Cadillac of credit-card companies. (I can even remember when Cadillac was the Cadillac of automobiles. I'm that old.) You flashed that green card--it came in only one color back then--and the whole world could see you were so rich you didn't care about spending $25 a year--wow!--for a little piece of plastic that Visa and MasterCard flung at you for nothing. Membership had its privileges, right?
Obviously, things have changed. These days, my AmEx privileges come courtesy of my very proletarian membership in Costco. I pay Costco dues instead of an American Express fee, and AmEx pays me. That's right: I earn a rebate on everything I charge, and not just at Costco.
The rebate arrives once a year in the form of a check attached to a monthly statement. The statement comes from AmEx, not Costco. And here's how that check was introduced this year:
Congratulations! You have earned a valuable reward for using your American Express™ Costco Cash Rebate Credit Card.
Your rebate coupon can be redeemed at any Costco Warehouse in the United States, including Puerto Rico, before the expiration date printed on the front of the coupon. Simply present the coupon at time of payment.
WHAT ARE YOU GONNA GET?SM
I'll tell you what I'm gonna get: I'm gonna get annoyed at AmEx for talkin' to me like that, yo. And I'm gonna get really hot and bothered over the fact that someone actually paid lawyers to servicemark that stupid phrase--and then immediately follow it with:
Please note: Rebate coupon may not be used for payment of the outstanding balance on your American Express™ Costco Cash Rebate Credit Card.
Wait a minute. Is that hip-hop on the soundtrack ... or easy listening?
Look, there are times when literal representations of vernacular can be appropriate. I've always liked the slogan of the toymaker Gund: "Gotta Getta Gund." It's alliterative, it's memorable, and, doggone it, it's the way kids talk. And kids are Gund's market. (Well, strictly speaking, grandparents are Gund's market. But kids are on the receiving end.) Most important, everything in Gund's brand language supports that slogan and the cozy, cute-but-not-kitschy, young-at-heart attitude it suggests. "We've been America's main squeeze since 1898." "Stuff everything with a lotta love." Getta, lotta--geddit? It's consistent.
Now take a look at AmEx's brand language: "Distinct benefits and services." "A valuable reward." "Security and peace of mind." "In a world where information can move faster than the speed of light."¹ "Exclusive to cardmembers." "The resources to stay on top of your credit around the clock with immediate access to your credit information."
This is the language of the boardroom and the annual report. "What are you gonna get?" is the language of the schoolyard, the pizza parlor, and the street corner. If "Exclusive to cardmembers" met "What are you gonna get" in a dark alley, Exclusive would throw down its wallet and run in the opposite direction.
My point is that branding isn't one big thing, like a corporate name or a logo or an ad campaign. It's a lot of little details that need to connect into a cohesive whole. Word choice is one of those things. When AmEx chooses inappropriate words and strays from its established brand voice, the result is jarring and confusing. It erodes confidence.
So what am I gonna get? I dunno--maybe a coupla Advil for this headache. I think I'll pay cash.
¹ No, it can't.