When we think of the most popular loyalty programs in Australia, or even in the world, we’re not just thinking about your Myer One cards, Frequent Flyers, and FlyBuys points… 

These traditional programs can definitely shift purchase behaviour but I find the loyalty programs that provide some of the best retention inspiration amplify the brand, identity, and customer experience.

Some of the most popular loyalty programs don’t look like your typical points-based programs but cultivate identity.

A football club could be described as a business with a membership program. Football club’s marketing departments have merchandise to sell, seats to fill, and PR teams. They have their own brand stories, with a sea of characters that span generations. Sometimes they are soap operas (think spats between players and coaches, player scandals) and sometimes they are remarkable underdog tales (think of the Richmond Tigers winning the AFL premiership for the first 37 years in 2017). They have diehard fans, who will do everything from putting their bumper stickers on their cars to getting their team’s colours tattooed on their skin…

Case in point. Hopefully the club never changes its branding 😉 Source.

Almost one million Australians are members of an Australian Football League club. That might pale in comparison to the almost 10 million Woolies and Coles are said to have together, but when you think about paid memberships, this is pretty good. The memberships are not cheap, either – some memberships can cost upwards of $300.
Well, why are they so successful then? Some of the most compelling reasons come from the idea that supporting sport can be an identity – and community-forming activity. There is inherent value in that identity and the activities it enables.

People want to be a ‘part of something’ 

Think about this: what does it mean to be a football club supporter? You can pick any club you want. It means you watch the games and get to whichever ones you can access. It means that you know about the club, its story, the players’ stories, its strengths (and, of course, its weaknesses). It means you feel happy or sad based on the club’s performance and you are fiercely invested in its success. Why can’t you have just that for your brand?
So this is a call to improve your product – make it something people tie emotions to or give it an experiential dimension that physically (or vocally) engages your cardholders – put on special events, send out branded merchandise, find brand advocates who are willing to be publically seen and heard voicing their love for your product. For some brands, perhaps cosmetics brands, it is even possible to generate a sense of communal belonging by hosting online forums where loyal members can discuss how they used your product (to express their own identity, even!).

“The holy grail for brand is to be the thing that two strangers bond over on a bus, in a pub, or on the street.”

Marketers know the holy grail for brand is to be the thing that two strangers bond over on a bus, in a pub, or on the street. If your branded keychain, beanie, shirt, or other item gets noticed on the street, you want someone to be proud to say they are a part of you and your program. Strong branding helps bolster the success of your program here, too: having a recognisable logo, recognisable colours, a recognisable mascot makes you unmistakable and distinctive.

Great loyalty programs affirm positive identity

Another example of a membership program that participants take pride in is gym memberships. In our society today, fitness can carry a certain virtue, and the activity of honing that fitness does too. Gyms’ peak sign-up times are seasonal – after Easter, summertime, or the New Year. After all, a new year can always mean a ‘new you’. Who doesn’t want a ‘summer body’? And after Easter, chocolate indulgence provokes a boost in participation.
Some gyms also have tiered programs. Inviting customers, or automatically making your repeat customers a part of a tiered program, not only helps customers feel their business is acknowledged and therefore valued, but they’ll feel more important. When we feel our business is valued, we are more inclined to spend more with that company. An e-commerce store that achieves this is ASOS that offers Premier Delivery. Naturally, the program encourages repeat purchase behaviour:

The best loyalty programs acknowledge participation

You might have heard of Patreon – it allows fans of artists or creators to financially support those artists through donations.

It’s used by comic artists, podcasters, comedians, writers, bloggers and designers alike to generate income from people who might otherwise just observe their art. And it’s popular – almost one million people are using the platform to support one or more artists and creators. Patreon allows creators and artists to build their own paid loyalty schemes that engage their fans. For instance, you could decide to give $2 a month to your favourite podcaster, which could score you early access to presales of their live show. Maybe giving $3 a month could get you sent a sticker pack on top of that. $10 might get you a personalised thank-you note from your fav’ designer. These, in their essence, are loyalty programs. Supporting an artist gives participants a sense of pride that they are giving back to something bigger than themselves.

Gratitude creates loyalty

What all of these loyalty programs have in common is that they both acknowledge and encourage the desired behaviour.

Brands, as big and faceless as they can be, can be more human, and bring their brand characteristics to life via their loyalty programs. Consumers are placing higher expectations on brands to not only be familiar with their purchase history thanks to the growth of CRM systems but increasingly expect offers to be personalised to their behaviour, particularly on the e-commerce front. So, for a start, it’s appropriate for many brands to send customers a discount on their birthday, but overall, if you want the ultimate loyalty program, it’s your entire brand experience that needs to be one that your market’s happy to repeat.

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