Brand Evangelism. Why I don’t participate in loyalty programs

I have never had a loyalty card or have been a member of any brand loyalty program, at least not to my recollection. There are brands that I admire, of course. Yet, I have never been a part of their “inner circle”. It might sound like I have a lot of money and don’t need discounts. I don’t have a lot of money.

I especially don’t like the idea of collecting points in supermarkets and did not do it even when I was a student and often had 10 pounds on my person and still two days to go until the salary from my part time job. Whenever the cashier at the till would twitter the usual, “Are you a member?”, I would proudly say no and place the canned beans on the counter which were all I could afford. Probably because I wasn’t a member.

My years of resistance have taught me not to resist anymore. The fact is—I would rather buy less and cheaper items than to enter the inner circle of brand loyalty programs.

There has been a lot of talk in Marketing about “gamification”. Make it seem like a game and customers will fall head over heals for you. I am sure, as with everything in life, there is a time and place for that. However, call me crazy, but for the most part I don’t want to turn grocery shopping in a Hunger Games marathon where I maniacally run around the city collecting points and getting discounts from my 10 or 20 cards. Or even if it is just one card — a credit card that has tie ups with brands — I don’t want my life to be dominated by thinking about what and where to buy in order to save a few dollars. I find it exhausting.

I don’t want brands and the things I consume to take over my life. I want my life to be simpler. Period. And I am ready to save by spending less.

I started thinking about this after reading a post on medium — Nobody Wants Your App.

Ever since a mobile app became “the thing”, and we started hearing about people making millions overnight, brands seem to think that just by making an app, any app, they will engage customers and promote loyalty.

Apps became the new loyalty programs.

Having myself worked for a startup in Southern India that was developing an app, I have seen first hand how difficult it is to drive downloads and, even if you do, to make people use the app on regular basis.

There are a number of stats out there on app usage. Nielsen says that,

Smartphone owners ages 25–44 use the greatest number of apps per month (29 apps, on average) (…)..

There is no doubt that we spend a lot of time on apps but I am slightly sceptical about the number of apps actively used. 29 seem an awful lot. The article though does not say what is the frequency of usage. I think that Fortune magazine’s estimation is closer to reality,

“A new study by comScore reveals that smartphone owners in the U.S. typically only use about three apps frequently.

And what about the stats on loyalty programs? HubSpot writes that,

According to the 2015 Colloquy Customer Loyalty Census, American households hold memberships in an average of 29 loyalty programs, but are active (meaning earn or redeem at least one per year) in only 12 of them.

I would further argue that redeeming one per year is not loyalty but an accident.

Just out of interest, I decided to have a look at the play store to see if there are Android apps for some of my favourite brands. Out of the 14 brands that I recalled purchasing frequently or that I like a lot, 10 had an app.

I have used two of those but none of them on frequent basis, and one has already been deleted. The one that I deleted was an app by my local gym. Essentially it was a class schedule.

My gym app

Their website is not mobile optimised but they would have been so much better off by creating a mobile optimised website than a so, so non-essential app.

People simply don’t want new apps. They want new and compelling services from brands that are attractive enough to be shared with their friends.”, Ryan Sheffer.

The concluding sentence of the Nobody Wants Your App post pretty much says it all. Apps and loyalty programs are not a replacement for good products, services and doing something people believe in.

One of the products that I can call myself a brand evangelist for is HubSpot. I did download their app but I rarely use it because it is not essential for my work (this is a topic for another post, but I believe it has more use for Sales than Marketing). The app does not make me want to be loyal. The product does.

To give (perhaps a more relevant) B2C example, I really like Hush Puppies shoes. They are simple and they last a long time. I know if I buy a pair, I won’t have to go through the headache of buying another for at least a couple of months. It’s a good product that solve my problems. I prefer being won over time and time again by quality, not by small discounts.

When it comes to low cost items, like FMCG, I value convenience above getting 100 points on my loyalty card. I’d rather pay 50 cents more for a brand that is there and available than go to another store. There is an exception though.

I am much more likely to be won over by causes than loyalty programs. If I am to go out of my way to purchase a bottle of olive oil, I will do that if the company has a great CSR program.

Tom Goodwin makes a good point in his post “The Post App World — Why Apps Will Die”. He says that the abundance of apps cater to the needs of brands, not people. Brands think their apps will serve as ads for their offerings. So we end up with 10 apps for getting around the city, 10 for playing music, 10 for reading content, and so on and so forth.

He explains, “Maybe my interest in news is less about the New York Times, and more about Technology or the writings of Thomas Friedman.”

His point is that instead of having 3 apps where he can read posts by Thomas Friedman, there should be a different solution for navigating content which is not based on individual apps but aggregation. He proposes intriguing solutions. Do read the post.

That is how I feel about brand loyalty programs/apps. I like certain things like wine, books, particular authors, durable shoes. And I have a way of doing things, for example, I don’t mind waiting in a cue at a farmers’ market but will never spend time waiting in a cue at a fast food restaurant, etc. These are things that matter to me and I want to be able to enjoy then. I don’t mind which brand offers me that and if there are two brands that offer the same, I will choose the more convenient one. Unless one of them has a strong purpose I believe in.

In short, perhaps the 2016 answer to loyalty programs and apps is:

  1. Having a good, mobile optimised website. I believe user experience and convenience will play an increasingly important role.
  2. Investing in content and SEO so your brand can be found and heard — important in the environment of decreased loyalty.
  3. Making products and services that truly solve a problem, instead of being just 1% better than the competition.
  4. Standing for something that matters to your target audience.
  5. Good old fashioned branding (so you don’t think I have my head up in the clouds).

p.s. This is a complicated issue and, admittedly, low cost FMCG items have considerations beyond the ones I tried to address here. The article Brand loyalty: Betrayal through the sin of convenience argues a good point for the other side — how convenience plus loyalty programs influence purchasing decisions.

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