Inside The Long-Standing Relationship Between Coachella And American Express

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One of the most in-demand spots at weekend two of Coachella — the American Express lounge. On Saturday at four in the afternoon there was a line well over a hundred deep waiting to get into the oasis located between the Mojave and Gobi tents.

Reserved for card members and their guests, the lounge, Saturday, offered free ice cream and other treats throughout the day along with exclusive Billie Eilish and Conan Gray merch and a full bar.

The relationship between Coachella and corporate entities has long been a complicated one, with the festival banning brand names on the grounds the first several years. As Coachella has grown those restrictions were eased. Though despite people referring to Coachella as the “Super Bowl of Branding” the reality is that on the grounds you don’t see that many brand names. Most of the branding comes from outside parties that have nothing to do with the festival itself.

So having been at Coachella since the beginning I was definitely intrigued when Am Ex, some years ago, was one of the first corporations to be welcomed onto the actual Coachella grounds.

The reason why is simple — Am Ex gets music. I have a lot of musician friends, a lot, and most will tell you that brands struggle to communicate with musicians. But Am Ex is one of a handful, along with Vans, Mastercard, CitiBank, Red Bull and a few others, that work in harmony with the music community.

For Am Ex that extends to having a presence at events and festivals. The person who oversees that now is Shizuka Suzuki, who joined the company last year from AT&T. I spoke with Suzuki about her first Coachella, how Am Ex’s activations may have changed in a post-COVID world and what they looked for in teaming with Eilish.

Steve Baltin: When did you join Am Ex?

Shizuka Suzuki: It was right after the 4th of July actually.

Baltin: So this was your first Coachella with Amex. I assume though this was not your first Coachella or was it?

Suzuki: It actually was my very first Coachella. Yeah.

Baltin: So what did you think?

Suzuki: What was really interesting to me is the community aspect of these types of events. Before Am Ex, I came from AT&T. I oversaw their sponsorships and experiential there and it was mostly sports. So that’s kind of the lens in the world that I come from. And you start to think about the communal aspect before the events like tailgating, etcetera. It’s no different here. I got to see more of a bit of the behind the scenes of the festival, like the camping grounds and in the quarters where all the fans were it’s a full, holistic weekend experience. I was just really struck by that and just strangers coming together. You run into somebody and you already have something in common, which was this love of music. There’s something really magical about that. So that I was really impressed by.

Baltin: One of the things that I was particularly interested in for this story is the difference in a post COVID world as to how people’s expectations and desires have changed. And even though it’s your first Coachella you certainly can still compare it to other events you’ve been to. Do you see what fans want from events has changed at all?

Suzuki: I think number one, would be the appreciation. I think, in a lot of ways pre-COVID, you take things for granted that it’s always going to be available and done in a certain way. And then you go through two years of what we did. And you come out on the other end, it’s really appreciated. I think that’s number one. I think number two is and certainly this holds true for our clients. If we think about it from American Express brands perspective it’s about that premium level experience or I would say, really making these experiences special and looking for those unique things I think, has become even more sought after, frankly. So, for us as we think about the events, like Coachella and the others to come, looking at our customer base and what they’re looking for, we’ve got to deliver on that.

Baltin: So what have you found they’re looking for? Especially in coming to an event like this.

Suzuki: We want to be where the fans are. But I think it’s also about what are some of those other opportunities where they are. So with that, the fans who may not be there, or maybe the fans maybe that are going to be heading there weekend two, what are some of those like digital or virtual types of experiences as well? So for example, we’re really excited about this exclusive merch program that we did and actually we’ll have it at weekend two as well. But merch obviously is something that is still very much so within like what fans are looking for in music. So we did this partnership with Bravado and we worked with Billie Eilish and Conan Gray on some really limited edition festival merch that was only available, number one, in our Amex lounge space on site but we also made it available online as well for those who weren’t on site. Things sold out pretty quickly, like the Billie Eilish sweatshirt. Obviously she’s very passionate about using reclaimed up-cycled materials. So we worked with her in making sure that that item was very much representative of that. Same with Conan, created the pullover that had a nod to his song “Heather,” with a bit of this exclusive nod to Coachella with desert cactus embroidered, some really fun things like that. So I think it’s really about making sure that we’re providing those access experiences to our card members and our prospects wherever they are.

Baltin: Where do you see that going forward?

Suzuki: I think this is an area that we’ll continue to look at, whether that be for music or sports. And I think it has to be, to what we just talked about, authentic to that moment, to experience, etcetera. But I think that we will find new ways. Certainly, as long as this is something that our customer base wants and is excited about. And as far as we can tell, that excitement is there. So we’re really excited about continuing that.

Baltin: What does your customer base want?

Suzuki: Expectations have changed. And certainly, I think for us, it’s always about staying ahead of the curve. Especially when you work on the work that we do. I’ll give you a quick stat, this was publicly mentioned. So I don’t want anybody on the call on my PR side to have a heart attack. But in the last earnings call there was a mention about the fact that 75 percent of our, call it the new acquisition that happened last year around our platinum and gold cards, were actually Millennials and Gen Zs. So if we think about the fact that our card members are also getting younger, it’s about making sure that we stay ahead of the curve in terms of what people are looking for. Whether that be in merchandise, whether that be in those moments or on-site and experiences, it’s about what are some of those areas of opportunity for us to be there in an authentic manner. So for Coachella, we have continued to bring the Am Ex brand back because we continue to see that this is a really great opportunity. Something fans look for is that Oasis in the middle of the desert.

Baltin: How do you incorporate all the elements of Coachella into your program?

Suzuki: If we think about what are some of those iconic rituals that are associated with Coachella, you think about certainly the Ferris wheel. We provide complimentary rides there, or we have a card member only hour to be able to walk through SPECTRA, which normally there’s a whole long line out the door. So we want to be able to give our card members that special opportunity to really be able to go and not necessarily be with all the crowd. And then the other part too, I think this is new for this year is our relationships certainly with Resy, and if we think about the fact that we have multiple interests right? So we’re not monolith, we’re not just music or food, we’re both. We love music and we love food. And so this was a really great opportunity for us to partner with Resy. There’s a pop-up within the VIP section called Broad Street Oyster, and certainly, if you have a Platinum Card, you automatically get global dining access with that on Resy. So there are special, call it reservation sections that are reserved off for our card numbers as well. So really fun. In terms of really thinking about that holistic experience for fans that are on site, so really proud of that, really proud of the team for putting all this together.

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