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Do you know what rewards deliver the most joy? You should.


It’s a brave new world of brand loyalty, folks, and rewards are the currency of brand love.

Not the fleeting flirtation of a chocolate box, but rewards that conjure real joy. You know, something that stimulates the heart, pings the brain and makes a person happy about bonding with your brand.

Give and give again

You’re not the only game in town. Employees, partners and customers have a world of choice, so why choose your brand over the rest? Not sure? The key to building irresistible brand loyalty is deceptively simple: people want to be acknowledged, understood and valued as individuals. The more of that love and respect you give, the more you’ll get back in authentic loyalty.

The reality of rational emotions

If that sounds a little too hearts and flowers as a brand strategy, consider the hard evidence delivered by brain research over the past two decades. Thanks to the tech wonders of neuroimaging, we can actually see the pleasure pathways of the brain glow in response to the mere anticipation of reward. Add the recent contributions of behavioural economics and game theory to our understanding of human behaviour and you get what Economics Professor Eyal Winter calls ‘rational emotions’.

Gifting for reciprocal loyalty

To give social science its due in our understanding of how giving rewards builds loyalty, consider early 20th Century research on ‘gift economies’ - communities structured on a model of giving and receiving life’s necessities with no expectation of payment. Compared to the pervasive greed, cut-throat competition and social inequality engendered by typical market economies, communities structured on gift economies were shown to be more equitable, stable and socially cohesive.

On closer inspection of the data, researchers discovered (in a manner of speaking) a basic human trait: when receiving a gift, or a helping hand, people feel a desire to give something in return. And it’s not just the item or service received that matters, there’s a ritual around gifting that strengthens social bonds. In the case of your customers, employees and partners, gifting builds the bonds of loyalty to your brand. This is the concept of reciprocal loyalty and it has significant implications for loyalty marketers.

The motivational component

Psychology and marketing professor Robert B. Cialdini suggests that there’s a motivational component to reciprocal loyalty that brands can and should use to influence behaviour. And remember, it’s not just customer behaviour we’re talking about; rewards support the loyalty bond with employees and channel partners, as well.

The art of giving

To complement the various scientific and economic perspectives on human behaviour, flash back to your 8 year-old self and remember the giddy joy of finding the latest mini collectable toy at the bottom of the cereal box. Fun, right? Or let’s up the pleasure factor and imagine your first brand new bicycle or soccer ball or surfboard or whatever played to your passion as a youngster. How do you fashion a rewards program that delivers a grown-up version of that joy, and connect the emotion of the moment to your brand?

Personal and purposeful

Rewards need to be personally relevant to have any emotional impact at all. At a customer level, you can use transactional data to do some high level segmentation, but you need to dig deeper to get a properly nuanced perspective of what is personal and purposeful for individual customers.

To illustrate: My friend Pheladi regularly buys baby nappies. At a transactional-level glance you might slot her into the young mother customer category and target communications and reward offers accordingly. What your data won’t tell you is that she’s 21, single, works full time as a travel agent and lives in a bachelor flat. The frequent nappy purchases? A favour for her neighbour; a stay-at-home mom with three little kids and no daytime transport. So if you limited your customer intelligence to transactional data, you’d be rewarding Pheladi (not) with discount vouchers for baby food. You can do better.

How to get personal

Developing personas is one way to prevent misguided rewards. These fictional representations of your rewards audience help you put a human face to generic categories like ‘employees’, ‘customers’, or ‘channel partners’. Behind the category labels are real people, after all, with jobs, families, passions and unique personal preferences.

Discovering personal preference

No, it’s not a simple shake and bake exercise, but with a focused plan and high-powered analytical tools you can build a deep and nuanced database of personal reward preferences.

An easy way to get going is segmentation by three basic rewards scenarios; attraction, retention and motivation.

Want to attract high value customers – and who doesn’t? Take your existing data analytics, examine your buyer personas and fashion a relevant reward offering. Be expansive, generous, deliver a joyful experience. And remember the theory of reciprocal loyalty: the more authentic rewards you give, the more your customers want to reward you back with their loyalty.

To retain high value customers you need to remain relevant. Once you’ve established your program and have usage data to work with, use preference analysis on registration, transaction or redemption data. Now you’re getting a clearer picture of personal preferences that you can build on and tailor to lifestyle and lifecycle changes.

To keep relationship engagement high, remember the power of novelty and surprise on the brain’s pleasure circuits. Every rush of reward joy you deliver bonds people a little bit closer to your brand.

It all comes down to authentic interest. The more you know about your customers, channel partners and employees and the types of rewards they prefer, the better able you are to deliver a joyful rewards experience. With a stream of big data, high octane analytics tools, a plethora of research models and a deep segmentation strategy, you’re good to go with personal, purposeful rewards. Feel the joy.


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Joyce Monson

About Joyce Monson

Joyce Monson is a freelance writer with an abiding interest in human behaviour. She has written for numerous trade and consumer publications on subjects ranging from loyalty marketing to employee recognition and rewards.

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