I’ve spent the majority of my career in the loyalty space. I’ve been fortunate to work with two of the most recognized and respected loyalty programs in the world: Nectar in the UK and AIR MILES here in Canada. (I’m a huge fan of our Canadian program. My kids tease me that when we go shopping I typically have my AIR MILES card out of my wallet before my AIR MILES credit card.)
I’m genuinely proud to work for such a great Canadian brand, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. We’ve been successfully running the program for two and a half decades and our distinctive blue AIR MILES card is now a fixture in a third of Canadian households.
So I know an awful lot about how to run a loyalty program. But this past year has tested almost every aspect of my loyalty training. I’ve had to re-examine many of the best practices I’ve learned over the years about how to formulate a program that builds relationships and drives revenue.
That’s because for the past year I’ve been part of our burgeoning Global Solutions team, whose mandate is to grow our loyalty business in some of the most exciting and fastest-moving markets in the world. Since I honed my craft in the mature and largely stable markets of Canada and the UK, it’s been a real eye-opener.
Here’s just a small flavor of my experience:
Email? What’s email?
I’d read all the stats. I’d seen the news reports. But nothing really prepares you for the sheer size and velocity of the Chinese market. I was well aware of the language and cultural nuances, and of the shopping savvy of Chinese consumers, but it was the advanced technology in China that floored me.
The loyalty programs I worked on in Canada and the UK evolved from a basis of email communications. At AIR MILES we’ve been experimenting with personalized email communications for many years and we have it down to a real science. In China, we walked into a country completely entrenched in a single massive interconnected digital ecosystem: WeChat. You think Facebook is pervasive in Canada? It’s got nothing on WeChat, which has 768 million active daily users.* Chinese consumers use WeChat for an almost unfathomable number of regular activities: texting/chatting with friends, ordering food, hailing an UBER, consulting a doctor, posting pictures, watching traffic camera feeds, monitoring the air quality, transferring money, and making payments, all on their mobile phones. WeChat is ubiquitous. In fact, with email being largely non-existent in China, much of our own team communications happen within WeChat – it’s just that prevalent for personal and professional life in China.
So, of course, WeChat is also woven into the culture and the etiquette of how brands interact with their customers. As a team with such deep expertise in email-driven loyalty programs, we had to essentially start from ground zero in China. It’s been an incredible learning experience.
Easier ways to collect
To collect program points in Canada and the UK, you show your plastic or digital program card at checkout. In Brazil, you don’t even have to have a program card; all you have to do is provide your CPF number (Brazil’s national security number) at checkout and your program points are automatically collected.
In China, they’ve made it even easier. If you’re enrolled in the program, the only thing you have to provide at checkout is your mobile number, which is linked to your program account. How convenient is that? It’s easy to forget your card at home, but chances are slim you’d ever forget your own phone number.
Focus on smaller, quicker-to-achieve options
In recent months we’ve been working closely with our Brazilian colleagues, which has been equally fascinating. Brazil has the fifth-largest population in the world with more than 190 million citizens (compare that with 34 million in Canada and 65 million in the UK), and it’s fraught with financial and political volatility.
In Canadian and British programs, we deliberately create a mix of rewards but we primarily showcase aspirational rewards like travel. I had expected something similar in Brazil, but for Brazilians experiencing turbulent economic conditions (the country’s GDP has been in negative growth since 2015), it’s the low-value reward options that have proved the most popular. The Brazilian Dotz program features a broad set of rewards, but the most abundant are those at the lower end of the redemption-value scale. Collectors can redeem for items like a beer, a hot dog, or a cash discount, which can be achieved in a very short period of time. Cash-in-lane is also becoming increasingly popular.
Fortunately our Brazilian counterparts are very knowledgeable about their audiences. They’ve opened a whole new world to me as we co-create a diverse range of strategies and tactics for the Brazilian market.
Loyalty is vibrant
It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that, coming from the “advanced” market, we have all the answers. But the reality is that our colleagues in markets like Brazil and China are the ones breaking new ground. The agility of the companies I have worked with in these markets (in terms of their offerings and technologies) and of the consumers (in terms of their adoption of those offerings and technologies) is mind-blowing. These markets have a leapfrog mentality; their goal is not to simply catch up to established markets, but to surpass them to reach the same loyalty benchmarks through new channels and strategies. And I won’t be at all surprised when they do.