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Part 2: Foundational principles for developing a brilliant loyalty strategy. View part 1 here.

The Evolution of Loyalty: Loyalty Programs are already changing

Technology has driven fundamental changes in Customer behavior and how they shop. Today, Customers search for products, seek thoughts and opinions of other Customers, and increasingly order and pay for items online and via apps. Customers are also commenting on social media and even playing online games to earn virtual rewards. Thus, retailers have increased opportunities to listen to Customers and connect with them to deliver added value and help meet their needs at every touch point. For example, we can recognize our loyal Customers and drive engagement by providing advice on wine pairings, for example, or thanking them for posting a review and surprising them with a personalized offer while they are shopping online. By tracking and rewarding interactions beyond spend, we obtain a deeper understanding of our Customers to build stronger relationships. It's about creating lasting connections through relevant rewards and experiences where and when Customers want them.

The evolution is already underway, and the 'table stakes' have changed, as illustrated in this chart:

Foundational principles for developing a brilliant loyalty strategy

Below are principles to follow to develop a successful loyalty strategy:

What to Avoid

Although loyalty programs have been around a long time, many of them still have fundamental limitations.For some consumers the rewards are not worth the effort to participate in the program. For others, the requirements of participating are inconvenient, such as showing your card to earn points or getting paper versus digital rewards. If the proposition is too complex, busy Customers will just opt out. If reward thresholds are too high, it may take too long to earn a reward so Customers may just stop give up.Below are program pitfalls to avoid:

  • Low relevance for Customers
  • Low perception of generosity
  • Barriers across the Customer experience
  • Reward/tier thresholds that are too high
  • Developing a complex proposition which is difficult to understand
  • Treating the program just as a promotional tool
  • Having partners lack appeal or relevance
  • Requiring too much effort for the Customer to participate

A Look to the Future

Programs designed today should consider emerging trends to be relevant into the future. Below are my thoughts on what to expect:"Digital" and "omni-channel" are outdated termsBoth have been buzzwords in recent years, and with good reason. Customers own an average of 3.4 devices, and think of themselves, of course, as one person who just naturally integrates several modes of connection. Retailers and brands must recognize and interact with their Customers across all channels cohesively; 53% of Customers expect this right now, an expectation that grows exponentially every digital moment.Accordingly, a separate 'digital' or 'omni-channel' strategy is meaninglessBoth are elements of a larger Customer strategy, or as simple communication channels / executions within the loyalty or marketing strategy. Companies who have separate initiatives or departments focusing on digital or omni-channel are already almost hopelessly behind the curve. If your digital marketing strategy is different than your brand marketing strategy or your Customer Strategy, you are in big trouble.Also becoming outdated are "points"Points are becoming increasingly implicit within loyalty programs. Programs' messages should focus more on the actions and rewards, rather than the point process within the program. Lately, best practices are really recognition and engagement programs that use 'softer' or implicit points within a loyalty proposition. As members make purchases within these type of programs, they receive more interactions, benefits, offers, and insider access, and those are the desired payoffs.Companies are targeting Generation Z as they become more active CustomersGen Z is coming into the spending picture more now at ages 12-23. The interesting thing about this age group is that they have never known a world without technology, mobile, and social. They are more tech-savvy and tech-demanding than other age groups. This will advance the mobile trends we have already seen in recent years, and require companies to pay even closer attention to their behaviors as they define their shopping identities.Customers want companies to demonstrate a commitment to doing goodAlthough not typically viewed as a component of loyalty programs, consumers are increasingly aware of companies' corporate social responsibility and it influences their opinions of brands. Corporate responsibility and philanthropy are nothing new, but it is now being incorporated into loyalty programs. Many programs today include charitable actions in their messaging, and more importantly to directly impact Customers, are offering opportunities for Customers to participate in charitable elements.. One example, members can choose donations to a relevant cause as a reward option.Customers co-create their own experiencesPerhaps the most exciting and interesting concept, and one that Customers truly appreciate, is the opportunity for Customers to create their own experiences. Tesco's former BuyaPowa proposition put Customers in the role of pricing managers – the more wine they encouraged their friends to buy, the cheaper the price was per bottle for everyone. Walmart enlists Customers to be new product developers and then category managers, driving innovation in new products. Canadian Tire's Customer-driven 'Tested' panel are de facto quality control experts. Even the constitution of Iceland was rewritten by its citizens, who contributed their thoughts for a better society in a social media campaign.

Measuring the Success of Loyalty Programs

There are many ways to measure loyalty programs– diagnostic measures that evaluate how well the program is being executed. Do you have awareness, appeal, and participation? Is the program driving engagement and increased loyalty among members? Stay tuned for Part 3: Measuring the Success of Loyalty Programs.

This is the ninth in a series of LinkedIn articles from David Ciancio, advocating the voice of the customer in the highly competitive food-retail industry.

white and blue magnetic card

Photo by Avery Evans on Unsplash

Most companies attempting to drive customer loyalty fail miserably—and few so-called customer-centric companies generate sustainable customer loyalty that drives measurable business results. Why? Because they get three key principles completely wrong, right from the start:

  1. Loyalty is about the company acting loyally to its customers, not vice versa.
  2. It is about a loyalty approach, not a loyalty program.
  3. Loyalty is about the store, not only about the CRM.

1. Loyal to Customers

We start to act loyally to customers when we understand them to a level of detail that ensures that we remain responsive to changes in their behavior, relevant to ever-changing customer needs and rewarding in the way we treat customers.

Acting loyally is about adopting a loyalty mind set of managing customer segments as strategic business units (aligning with how we think about a category management strategy as managing categories as strategic business units). This context demands change that is both incremental and transformational—evolution, but with a bit of manageable revolution.

What customer loyalty is, and is not:

  • Acting loyally (responsive, relevant, rewarding) to our customers; not about customers being loyal to us
  • An overall approach throughout our business; not a proposition or program
  • Earning customer loyalty; not thinking that customers should become loyal
  • Collaborative partnerships to win customers together; not tolerant of internal conflict between areas of the business or with suppliers
  • Transparent; not opaque
  • Driving sales and cash margin; not customers being responsible for percent margin

2. Loyalty Approach vs. Loyalty Program

We demonstrate loyalty to our customers by taking a loyalty approach wherein we commit to rewarding and delighting our customers with products and experiences that meet their wants and needs.

  • We call this putting customers first—when we decide on priorities and actions based on insights from our customer data.
  • By doing so, a retailer becomes an even more prominent choice in the customer's consideration set. This is not a tactic; it is a long-term strategy that makes the customer the focal point of our business decisions and objectives.

The loyalty program is an important element within a loyalty approach, as the key source of the data that enables customer intelligence, and as the channel that enables us to talk to our customers personally. I call the loyalty program the "little l" in loyalty, with the loyalty approach as the "big L."

But a loyalty program is not required to act in a loyal way to customers. Here's how to think of "big L" loyalty:

A loyalty approach, simply put, embeds customer insight throughout the retail organization to enable better, faster decisions and thereby increase sales and profit sustainably. Best-in-class practitioners have seen an incremental sales uplift in the early stages of a loyalty approach of between 1% and 2% and later stages between 3% and 4%, quarter over quarter and year over year.

3. Loyalty Is About the Store, Not Just the CRM

As I used to say to my retail colleagues, "If the store is lousy but we deliver brilliant targeted CRM, the store will still be lousy."

Even if the personalized CRM is perfect, customers need to perceive that tangible changes have been made in the store itself before they will respond by giving more of their custom. We must put customer insights into action within the "hardwiring" of retail practices—pricing, promotion, assortment, adjacencies, new products, the checkout experience and so on.

In a previous article, I shared several examples of being loyal to customers in store by simply making the shopping experience easier—setting the yogurt section by customer need rather than by brand blocks, for example, and by setting product adjacencies according to how customers shop, rather than by how items are sourced in the supply chain.

3 Ways to Activate a True Loyalty Approach

  1. Make better business decision by putting the customer first. Everything is better when you start with the customer. Start with the data you hold on customers—understanding how they shop and behave, what is important to them and how they engage with your business. This insight will identify a number of opportunities for better decisions using the data.
  2. Improve the customer experience by using data-driven insights to improve your retail offering, such as assortment, pricing and promotions. Use insights to connect you to your customer through the store. Think of the mantra "data to insights to actions"—this is how improved like-for-like sales growth and customer loyalty is delivered.
  3. Transform the organization using customer-driven insight to help you better understand, anticipate, measure and continually respond to your customers. This is realized through empowering, aligning and equipping your people with relevant insights, values, goals, strategies and actions.

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[This is the fourth in a series of articles advocating the voice of the Customer in the highly competitive food-retail industry. David Ciancio is Global Customer Strategist for dunnhumby, a pioneer in Customer data science, serving the world's most Customer-centric brands in a number of industries, including retail. David has 48 years experience in retail, 25 of which were in Store Management. He can be reached at].

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