Don’t forget: loyalty is a two-way street

The following column, which appears each issue, looks at new and emerging trends in direct marketing. Alternating columnists are Barbara Canning Brown, a leading figure in the Canadian direct marketing industry, and David Foley, a specialist in database marketing programs.Strategy also...

The following column, which appears each issue, looks at new and emerging trends in direct marketing. Alternating columnists are Barbara Canning Brown, a leading figure in the Canadian direct marketing industry, and David Foley, a specialist in database marketing programs.

Strategy also invites other news items or column submissions for this section. Enquiries should be directed to Mark Smyka, editor, (416) 408-2300.

The scene is childhood in the 1950s.

You have just come home from a trip to the supermarket with your mother. She passes you a sheet of little green stamps and a book to stick them into.

Finally, after weeks of collecting, licking and sticking stamps, enough books are full to warrant sitting down with the catalogue of all the neat stuff you could ‘buy’ with the books of stamps.

For those of you too young to have participated in that primordial, philatelic pastime, let’s fast forward to the mid-1980s.

In droves we joined the ranks of ‘frequent flyers,’ flitting from airline to airline to take advantage of the latest promotion for triple miles between Oshkosh in Wisconsin and Oshawa in central Ontario.

It was fun – for awhile.

Then came the ’90s. Sales slid, costs climbed, profits peaked.

Suddenly, like a virulent, contagious disease that is undetected until the emergency wards fill up, the dernier cri was unleashed on an unsuspecting consuming public – customer loyalty programs.

Things to collect

Things to collect such as membership cards, points, and more points. Stuff to receive such as newsletters, free samples, special services. Places to belong such as clubs and circles. Wonderful words to describe you such as ‘Premium,’and ‘Select.’ You and your peers, whoever they are, from children to seniors.

Cookies, coffee, cat food, credit cards or cars, it seems no product is immune (or not for long) from the scourge of customer loyalty programs. In fact, I am sure it could be a full-time occupation just keeping up with them all.

‘But, but, but…’ I hear the marketing managers spluttering. ‘We have to get customers to stay with us. We have to compete. We’re building a database that allows us to track customer behavior around the clock. We have all this information at our disposal.

‘Look at this powerful new program, these prestigious new premiums, our bountiful new benefits,’ they say. ‘We’re giving away gifts. We’re giving away goodies. We’re giving away margin.’

You are giving away the farm.

Know why? Loyalty cannot be bought. At least, not for long.

Not to mention it may all just be getting to be a teensy bit much too much for people to take. In medicine, when the disease takes over, the patient dies. In marketing, when the customer reaches overload, you know what happens next.

Let’s put on our consumer hats for a minute.

What about you?

I ask, ‘Hey, marketing world. This is not only about my loyalty to you. What have you done to deserve my loyalty?

‘You’ve pushed merchandise at me. You’ve mailed me more stuff than I ever care to read. You’ve invaded my privacy. I’ve got a wallet full of every conceivable form of membership identification.

‘Every breath I take, every move I make has been data-captured, data-processed and data-based (or maybe it is de-based). Hello, out there? Anybody home?’

All I, and, I think, most consumers really want from a ‘loyalty program’ is:

1) To perceive that what you are trying to get me to do has some genuine substance and relevance for me, personally.

Too often marketers seem to assume people are just sitting waiting for their next bright idea. Wrong.

My life has context and texture and a lot going on in it. That wonderful database will tell you all about it. Now, what are you going to do for me that 99 others will not do?

2) Not to have to work at this loyalty thing. Just make it easy for me.

Goofy little cards

Do not ask me to remember to carry goofy little cards around, or make me wade through encyclopedias of instructions and wait weeks and weeks before collecting my ‘rewards.’ Relationships with near and dears keep me busy enough, thank you. Do not ask me to go out of my way to work at one with you, because I simply will not.

3) A little love in your heart, as the old song goes.

Okay, that may be pushing it, so I will settle for a little empathy – human being to human being. The target market of one.

What that looks like is well-researched, substantiated approaches, real thought put into the use of technology, delivered through tactics that are not intrusive in an obvious way.

4) Delivery on your promises – and then some. You earn the right to receive my loyalty, and, maybe, just maybe, I will stick around.

Barbara Canning Brown, a 20-year veteran of the direct marketing industry, is a direct marketing consultant specializing in catalogues. She was named Direct Marketer of the Year in 1990.