Loyalty in the future will not be like loyalty in the past. This much we know. Where once simple equations ruled (the customer collects points, the customer saves), there is now a chaotic, multi-channel hubbub increasingly driven by fast transactions and instant gratification, and the need for brands to think more deeply about the emotional, less rational, drivers behind the kinds of loyalty behaviours that might once have been exemplified by your grandmother insisting on her monthly trip to the local department store.
For brands that aspire to create customer loyalty in this new disorderly world, there is a fundamental question: quite simply, what will ‘loyalty’ in the future be? Already the conversation has long since moved on from the traditional points and prizes models, through ideas of personalised loyalty experiences for individual loyal customers, and on to the challenge of customer and context -led customisation of loyalty experiences. But where will this conversation lead us? And where, in terms of a customer’s emotional relationship with a brand, will ‘loyalty’ begin and indeed, end?
The key drivers behind the evolutionary changes to the loyalty model have been technological of course, both in terms of our ability to collect and store more customer data, and in terms of communications platforms that allow consumers to talk to each other in the same spaces (social media and mobile platforms in particular) that also allow for real-time, in-context marketing and brand-consumer interactions. These new technologies have brought new possibilities, and theoretically at least, brands now have a dizzying array of tools with which to create new kinds of long and short term, emotional connections with their customers. But those same tools have also presaged a new kind of consumer, with new and distinct expectations, some of which look determinedly dis-loyal.
However, reports of the ‘death of loyalty’, evidenced by increasingly brand-fickle consumer behaviours, perhaps driven by consumers now being empowered by access to different choices and information, may be exaggerated. It is always worth remembering the two sides of the loyalty coin: on the one, those customer behaviours that look, for all intents and purposes, like loyalty; and on the other, the brand-created, customer experiences that are designed to drive those behaviours. Brands may have been mistaken in assuming that ‘loyalty’ behaviour was ever more than ephemeral, dependent on loyalty schemes with a specific shelf-life; but that does not mean that brands cannot seek to redefine loyalty experiences and find new ways to drive loyal behaviours. The challenge lies in understanding the consumer of the future, and their redefined needs and expectations.
Loyalty has actually always been about creating an exchange of value between brands and consumers and especially about the value brands can provide beyond the specific features of a product being bought and sold, creating an emotive loyalty. This is unlikely to change. But understanding what kinds of value are likely to be exchanged in the future is a challenge. We need to answer the question fast, since, in this age of digital engagement and interaction, in which one-way advertising messages are now only part of the picture, the consumer is empowered to quickly seek, find and even demand, gratification of his or her own personal needs. Brands will need to respond to this, or find that their once ‘loyal’ customers are enticed elsewhere. In particular they will need to start seriously addressing the ‘harder to quantify’ aspects of the value exchange, and reconcile the rational value exchange with the less rational emotional value exchange.
Let’s get down to the nitty gritty.
One of the tools that brands increasingly have at their disposal is data (or ‘big data’ to use the fashionable term). We can now know a lot more about consumer behaviour at both the individual and group level. But we need to learn how to harness it, to make sense out of it, and to create beauty out of it. This challenge brings a number of attendant questions such as: how can we build data collection into business models? How can we know what the best or most relevant kinds of data are to collect? And of course, how can we use this data to create new kinds of loyalty experiences and value exchanges? Lurking ominously in the background there is also the question of to what extent consumers will allow us to collect and use their personal information, and what they will expect in return. The backlash is already beginning in some quarters, although the questions of whether there are generational differences in the value placed on personal information is an interesting one. Either way, it looks like, for brands, providing genuine value in new ways and making commitments to being honest and transparent look like inevitable first steps.
Assuming we answer some of these questions, we then face another immediate challenge: the ‘fat wallet’ problem. Given that data collection and storage is becoming ubiquitous, and the ability to contact and interact with customers is too, so there are more and more opportunities for brands to move in to the loyalty space and offer their own, unique, loyalty experiences. Banks, airlines and hotels are the traditional players in the space, but already we have seen multiple other entrants, not least of course, the likes of Google and Facebook, the very architects of many of the changes we are seeing in customer behaviour.
Consumers will increasingly face the literal and metaphorical problem of having a wallet (or purse) fat with loyalty cards. In this scenario, the value of loyalty may become diluted, the consumer may become overloaded, eventually disengaging from loyalty altogether, and brands will face an increasingly uphill struggle to remain ‘front of mind’, even when the value they offer is particularly relevant. One solution to this may be to start thinking away from ‘pro-active’ loyalty, in which the consumer must actively and consciously take part in a loyalty scheme (too many of these and wallets become fat), and on to more ‘passive loyalty’ models that demand less of the consumer. On the other hand, consumers may be happy to put up with fat wallets, in order to ‘smarten up’ their consumption patterns, using loyalty schemes strategically.
Behind these more broadly conceived challenges lie the questions and uncertainties surrounding the physical (or digital) mechanisms and infrastructure that will underpin loyalty experiences themselves. As already noted, technology has driven many of the changes we have already seen, and it is likely to in the future. We might for example see a proliferation of payment systems, or indeed a convergence. Loyalty currencies (points, air-miles etc.) might become instantly convertible and flexible enough to be used across contexts, and/or borders (a question which raises others around creating loyalty experiences that are relevant in different cultural contexts – are loyalty behaviours in China driven by the same set of value propositions?). The mobile wallet is a both a certainty and an uncertainty for those of us thinking about the future of loyalty. It may have little impact beyond changing the mechanism of payments, or the effects could be more profound.
Similarly, the channels for brand-consumer communication and interaction are likely to increase. Mobile is a certainty, but what about the so-called ‘internet of things’ or wearable technologies? Which inventions and innovations are the most likely to be adopted, and which will prove the most effective channels for the types of relationship-building that drive loyalty?
Associated with all this, comes the question of the impact of real-time, in-context feedback, interaction and marketing. Will the ability to make prices dynamic, rewards instant, and responses to consumer demands individually relevant, all mean that traditional, long-term, loyalty models become meaningless or (to use an excruciating pun) pointless? More likely perhaps is that short-term transactional consumer behaviours, and longer-term loyalty driven value exchanges are likely to co-exist, and it will be more a question of which consumers are looking for which type, and which sectors and brands can generate the different types of services to deliver to those different needs: providing mechanisms that address the relative simply needs of the instant transaction as well as addressing the more complex and diverse variables that go into shaping what makes a consumer loyal.