A good loyalty scheme is the best way to a girl’s heart

Originally published on the Café Create blog. If you’re looking for a charming integrated creative agency outside of London, it would be an excellent place to start. You might even get a coffee made by me if you’re lucky…


I never thought I would say this. I am a loyal Starbucks customer. It’s true. That’s not to say that I don’t drink coffee elsewhere if the moment presents itself (it’s 2014 remember, customer loyalty isn’t quite as clear-cut as it once was), but given the choice between Starbucks or one of the other Big Three, I’d go for Starbucks. Perhaps If I’d been a regular for sometime that wouldn’t mean anything, but considering I didn’t let my feet darken their doorway for years, it’s pretty significant.

So what led to my conversion? This is not an ode to Starbucks or a cunning scheme to ensure a lifetime of free lattes (wait, hold that thought…). There was no one moment or transaction that sealed the deal; in a sense this is a case study of the different factors that can affect loyalty and perhaps a reminder that there is no set recipe for it. If there was ever a time where customer loyalty could be created and controlled through one aspect of a business alone, those days are certainly gone. Who says that’s a bad thing? Demanding customers -who will let you know though one of the many channels available to them, when something falls short of their expectations- provide an unprecedented opportunity to create products and brands that people really care about.

Where it all began.

The holy tenet of marketing; product differentiation. Does it still mean anything? It’s true, all of the major coffee chains have similar if not identical offerings in terms of drinks. I know what you’re thinking, in such a saturated market is differentiation even possible? And yet Starbucks is the only one that makes a Caramel Macchiato in that particular way, that reminds me of cafés in Seoul, South Korea, that served a particularly sweet but unusual coffee that I haven’t tasted anywhere since. Granted, that is about as personal and emotive as you will ever get when it comes to customer expectations. Trying to predict that particular combination of circumstances alone is going to end in an unhappy journey; it’s like pursuing a nonexistent holy grail of retail. Yet it goes to show that it is always worth the continued effort of focusing on producing exactly what a customer wants in order to create an emotive connection. The rewards are worth it when you do.

Service please.

There’s no escaping this one. Sure, create a bad experience and you’re far more likely to hear about it than when you create a satisfactory one. Create an excellent one though, and the odds start to move in your favour. I can probably recall on one hand the times that I’ve experienced excellent, stand-out customer service. That’s a wasted opportunity right there. We can’t keep pretending that we still live in a time where the day-to-day customer experience can be segmented and removed from the overall impression of a brand; it’s just too important. So how do you make those moments? In the case of one Starbuck’s employee that meant giving me a coffee free-of-charge on the day I lost my purse. He certainly wasn’t supposed to and I’m not advocating breaking the rules to make everyone happy, but I won’t forget it all the same. In that instance I felt relief, gratitude, and yes, you guessed it, loyalty.

Business (not) as usual.

This is all powerful stuff, creating those moments and connections with your customers can override objections they may have with other aspects of your brand, if you only give them a reason. But it also needs to be easy; easier and more enjoyable than anywhere else, for them to walk through your door, and purchase your product.

Companies are often preoccupied by new customers. There’s nothing wrong with that on the face of things.  I like meeting new people too, who doesn’t? But I’d be a poor friend if I abandoned all my friends for the tall dark stranger in the corner every time we went to a party and the same goes for brands.

Here’s my card:

Enter the beleaguered and often misunderstood customer loyalty scheme. A brilliant opportunity to attract and retain customers and yet I can only think of two customer loyalty programs (outside of the supermarket realm) that I actually value and use on an almost daily basis. Boots -because their scheme is older than time itself and offers a better points to purchase ratio than competitors- and…Starbucks. Because they have combined innovation, user experience and branding in a way that’s unprecedented.

If you create a loyalty scheme that offers nothing different over your competitors why would you expect your customer to take the time to enquire about, acquire and join or register for your program? Getting a customer to start using the scheme is much harder than convincing them to pick up a leaflet in-store. Once they do, it’s a habit, it’s easy and there are incentives to keep up. Before they’ve registered, it’s just another piece of plastic (please say it’s plastic, I think most of us have enough little scraps of card floating around in coat pockets and bags to last a lifetime) in the bottom of their purse that has failed to gain any significance to them.

I’m certainly not the first to praise Starbucks’ mobile payment strategy and it’s easy to gloss over the incredibly advantageous position that allowed them to experiment and implement such a strategy in the first place, but the result is a customer loyalty scheme like no other. And that means I’m unlikely to pick up a competitor’s card any time soon… until they catch up and give me a reason to take notice.

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