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Gold Stars

August 10, 2010

For years airlines have been working tirelessly to increase brand loyalty (create brand loyalty?) through frequent flyer programs. When the economy was booming the savvy traveler could rack up thousands of miles a month and be able to take lovely vacations at the end of the year. Businesses paid for travel and the whole “brand loyalty” aspect of the programs seemed to work. I know I certainly benefited from it.

Now we are in more austere times and smart businesses have realized that not every meeting needs to be face to face. I know that as a service provider I always look for ways to give my clients the most value for their money and conference calls beat plane trips most of the time. This has made a huge dent in the amount of travel for many of us.

Through one lens this might mean the death of any loyalty to an airline. What matters now is price. A different perspective is that every trip needs to be optimized to gain miles on a preferred carrier. I know my organization is optimizing for price. That just makes sense. The benefits of a frequent flyer program are far outweighed by the benefits of a good bottom line for the business.

So, last year I failed to achieve “gold” status on my preferred airline for the first time on almost a decade. This year will likely be the same. Am I really losing out on anything? Well, perhaps next year’s vacation will require more dollars out of pocket than miles from my account. That might make the vacation all the sweeter.

Fundamentally, that gold card when I go to the airport got me through the security line faster and made it more likely I would be in a first class seat. I miss it a little, but those perks are not really worth the savings to my clients and my business. Besides, I have a new gold card in my wallet.

Yes, I am a frequent drinker. The marketing team at Starbucks finally saw the opportunity they have been missing for years. Many of us visit Starbucks 2-3 times a week; some people go 2-3 times a day. This is real brand loyalty. It might also be “blind” brand loyalty — we are on auto-pilot as we cruise by and grab our latte each morning. However you want to define it, Starbucks has a strong hold on their customers.

The new Starbucks card program rewards frequent drinkers with a gold card after 30 visits. Every 15 visits after that you earn a free drink. There are some other benefits but they really don’t amount to much. When you present your gold card to the cashier you are treated exactly the same as every other customer — friendly and efficiently. You can’t jump to the front of the line and you don’t get to boot someone else out of the comfy chair while you drink your coffee.

What are the real benefits to me besides that free drink once a month (and a gold card with my very own name engraved upon it)? It is the “stars” you earn with each visit. This handy device for tracking your use of the card is the world’s simplest video game. I visit a store and another star drops into my cup. I can see my cup on my computer or on my iPhone through the Starbucks card app. I can also track the balance on my card. As dollars go down, stars go up. How can I minimize the amount I spend per star? Can I treat a friend to a drink just to earn another star? The gaming possibilities here are limited; and that is part of the appeal.

There are a lot of ways to win brand loyalty. The best way is to deliver an outstanding product or service to your customers at every touchpoint. But, don’t overlook the possibility of giving them a gold star for their efforts as well.

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