Eve Blossom, founder and president of Charleston, S.C.-based Lulan Artisans, a socially responsible textile company, says she's a winner -- even if she loses. In mere days, Blossom finds out if her End Human Trafficking: Sustainable Livelihoods submission makes it to the top 5 of American Express' second Members Project contest, an online initiative that invites card members to submit ideas that would make a positive impact on the world. Members and nonmembers alike vote on the winners.
At press time, Blossom's project, which would foster economic development through an alliance of textile designers and weavers in Southeast Asia -- and includes the building of weaving centers -- ranked 14 on the list of top-25 contenders. The first-place prize: $1.5 million. But the architect and designer, who partnered with Architecture for Humanity for the effort, says regardless of whether the venture gets the much-needed cash-flow injection to get off the ground, the publicity "has had an impact in term of the awareness it has raised."
The contest, the winner of which will be announced Oct. 14 (approximately 1,200 ideas were submitted), has a 12-member advisory panel that includes CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, United Negro College Fund president Dr. Michael L. Lomax and Jane Goodall. Ideas were submitted to membersproject.com, where users can browse and comment on all the efforts. A total of $2.5 million in funding will be handed out, with the second-place winner receiving $500,000, the third $300,000, and the fourth and fifth $100,000.
"Rather than dictate to the consumer, we thought it was important to give our card members a voice in telling us what's important to them," says Belinda Lang, vp of consumer marketing strategy at American Express. "It's a modern way to think about problem solving: cast a wide net, get ideas from a very broad community to come up with how to make a difference."
Last year, American Express awarded the top prize to Greg Allgood's Children's Safe Drinking Water program. Working with the U.S. Fund for Unicef, it now helps provide clean drinking water, community education about water sanitation and affordable water-treatment products across four African nations.
This year, says Lang, the submission process was altered to help generate ideas ready to be put into action "When we looked at the ideas [from 2007]," explains Lang, "we saw a lot of people ... expressed what they were interested in" rather than providing an idea with a solution. The online submission process this year required more detailed information. The result, says Lang: "We have more real projects with measurable benefits to the community."
This year members also had the ability to use video, and the Web site, created by Digitas, was designed to allow greater community participation. "We realized there are people coming up with the ideas, driving the ideas, and there are people who want to discuss, engage and spread the word about the ideas," says Lang. "In the redesign, we really thought about that a lot and it's paid off in spades. The discussion activity around the projects is exponentially greater than last year."
Currently the site is highlighting the top-25 projects in four categories (although all projects can be easily found): arts and culture; community development; environment and wildlife; and eduction and health.
"We have a range of projects from feeding malnourished children to rebuilding New Orleans. ... It really reinforces that our community has diverse interests," says Lang.
To promote the contest, American Express ran TV and print ads from Ogilvy & Mather featuring some of the famous faces from its ads over the years with added copy explaining how that person has made a difference. Robert De Niro, for instance, "brought a city to life." It then leads viewers to the Members Project Web site.
While Lang says the company will look at the online metrics to judge the effort's success, bottom line the contest has "a positive impact on brand awareness" thanks to the interest nonmembers expressed in the contest online.
Blossom, who has been a card member since the '90s, says her participation in the contest has helped deepen the goodwill she already has towards the brand. "But it does make me question, if American Express is doing it," she says, "why aren't other companies?"