While recognizing and responding to the shaky economy, American Express Co. remains committed to sponsorship as a key component of its marketing strategy.

Indeed, the credit card giant has continued to add to its portfolio recently, with new deals from the two areas responsible for the company’s major sponsorships. Just last month the global sponsorship marketing department announced a tie to The GRAMMY Museum in Los Angeles, while AmEx’s merchant services division agreed to become the official card partner of the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Although seeking partnerships to accomplish longstanding objectives remains business as usual for AmEx, the way the company leverages its deals has been affected by the current state of the economy.

“We are not immune to the economic problems, and we know our card members are facing economic challenges of their own, so we are being sensitive,” said Jessica Igoe, director of global sponsorship marketing.

For example, the company has fine-tuned the cardmember packages offered around its sponsorship of next month’s Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York City to include a wider range of price points and options.

“We didn’t want to focus all of our programming around super high-end fashion,” Igoe said.

Because AmEx’s goal for its activation efforts is to enrich attendee experiences at sponsored properties, the company feels extra pressure to get it right when cardmembers’ discretionary dollars are limited, Igoe noted.

“People may choose to attend only a couple of entertainment events this year, so we want to make sure that what we’re doing for them is incredibly special.”

AmEx Sponsorships: The Why And The How
Deals emanating from the global sponsorship marketing department are focused on strengthening brand loyalty among cardmembers and reinforcing the message that there are benefits to having an AmEx card.

“We don’t use sponsorship to acquire new cardmembers,” Igoe said. “We want to tap into our cardmembers’ passions and give them an unbelievable experience.”

Although AmEx doesn’t directly target new business, it wants consumers who don’t have one of its cards to notice what it is offering current customers. “Certainly when they see what we do it gives them a reason to want to become part of it,” Igoe said.

Typical activation elements aimed at enhancing cardmembers’ experiences include pre-sale ticket availability, special seating/viewing areas, exclusive on-site services and amenities. (See table for specific activation examples.)

Additional benefits become available as cardmembers progress up the Green, Gold, Platinum and Centurion card tiers. Behind-the-scenes tours, access to celebrities and other perks are offered for sale to the top two tiers under the company’s By Invitation Only program of once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

AmEx recently has emphasized adding off-site promotions to reach non-attendees.

For example, the company last year activated its tie to the USTA’s US Open through presenting sponsorship of Live @ the Open on USOpen.org, which offered updates and other content. It also set up viewing screens in New York City’s Madison Square Park.

The company touts sponsorship promotions through statement stuffers, newspaper ads and online channels.

Sponsorships from the company’s merchant services division have a purpose of helping to spur transactions with key merchants through value-added offers.

For example, AmEx is leveraging its partnership with the San Francisco CVB to offer cardmembers three nights for the price of two at participating hotels. It also is touting special offers from hotels, retailers, restaurants and spas through the CVB’s OnlyInSanFrancisco.com site.

AmEx Sponsorships: The What And The Who
Global sponsorship marketing focuses on five types of properties: fashion, film, music, golf and tennis.

In music, AmEx’s GRAMMY Museum deal builds on its five-year-old partnership with AEG. The sports and entertainment company partnered with The Recording Academy on the museum, which is part of AEG’s L.A. LIVE development.

AmEx’s AEG relationship includes sponsor status with Staples Center, MLS Los Angles Galaxy, New York City’s Nokia Theatre and other music and sports venues.

The company also signed a deal last year with Front Line Management–which subsequently became a unit of Ticketmaster Entertainment, Inc.–a partnership that gives AmEx the opportunity to market pre-sale ticket offers and VIP packages for concerts featuring the management company’s artists.

AmEx last year also expanded its involvement in the fashion space with a tie-in to Bravo TV’s Project Runway, offering cardmembers access to exclusive video content on Bravo’s Web site.

Merchant services unveiled a deal last May to become the official payment of choice for Universal Studios Theme Parks & Resorts. The deal includes an affinity Universal American Express Card issued by GE Money, on-site exposure and first opportunity to participate in product placement and cross-promotions with Universal Studios and Focus Features films in the payment services category.

Global sponsorship marketing tracks success through market research conducted by Sponsorship Research Int’l measuring awareness of AmEx sponsorships and attitudes toward the brand.

The department does not look for a direct correlation between sponsorships and card usage. “We don’t say “X event has to deliver Y ROI,” Igoe said. “Our research and our dialogue with customers assure us we’re making the right decisions.”

Igoe, Courtney Kelso, vice president of sponsorship marketing, and Rich Lehrfeld, vice president of global sponsorships and access, are the key members of the global sponsorship marketing team. Major partnerships receive sign-off from AmEx CMO John Hayes.