At this point of the pandemic, there are very few of us who have not had to make some sort of significant adjustment in our lives—and in our livelihoods. Companies with loyalty programs are no different. In recent years, these organizations have catered to “experience-seekers”— those who actively search out new adventures, new places, and new people—with flight points, concert tickets, festival passes, and attractions. In short, interests and activities that have been severely curtailed by the impact of COVID-19.
But in order to meet the current needs and realities of their customers, many brands are changing their offerings to provide more relevant rewards—often domestic products and services that can be enjoyed from home.
While this shift is positive, well-intentioned, and serves to improve the lives of consumers, the truth is that, in the world of loyalty programs, amendments are often met negatively, with disdain and derision. And that’s not surprising: consumers have known some of their favourite brands to make abrupt changes that nullify points or impose seemingly sudden deadlines—actions that have prompted provinces like Ontario and Quebec to change legislation to tighten consumer protection. Even Starbucks (which has long offered one of the most beloved loyalty programs) struggles with this challenge and routinely faces backlash from consumers when program changes are announced.
Compounding this challenge, many companies are struggling to maintain loyalty at this time. A recent survey found that 85 percent of U.S. consumers say that brand names don’t matter during a crisis. What’s more, 30 to 45 percent of those consumers would keep a new brand they tried during COVID-19—suggesting that these brand switches could last for the long haul.
Consequently, brands need to be vigilant in proactively communicating any changes in this climate. They must ensure their messaging is positive and spells out the benefits. It must be open and clear; if people sense any deceit or underhandedness, the communication effort could backfire entirely. And it must be specific—letting people know exactly what’s changing, without making them dig for it.
Brands must also be wary of being seen as tone deaf when it comes to rain checks and exchanging rewards—for example, replacing canceled concert tickets with… more concert tickets. People today are leery of attending huge gatherings involving thousands of people. In the new normal, loyalty programs are yet another potential marketing landmine that brands must navigate with care. How program changes are communicated is almost more important to brand perception and loyalty than the change itself. It’s not enough to simply fill space with words and pictures—messaging and creative must be laser-focused and strategically driven by research and insight. Loyalty fulfillment must be executed with precision and punctuality—with no excuses. And consumers must be reached at the appropriate time and place, and through the right channel—with highly personal communications that look toward a brighter tomorrow, while making the best of today.