Studies have shown that new consumer habits form in 90 days or less, meaning consumers are always looking for different ways to spend their time and money.

During the pandemic, consumers’ habits changed even quicker. A recent Wells Fargo survey showed that the pandemic prompted two-thirds (63%) of credit card-holding consumers to initiate “pandemic purges”: three-quarters (72%) decluttered their closets, one-third (29%) purged their friends on social media, and another one-third (33%) simplified and decluttered their finances.

With those changes occurring at warp speed, fuel and C-stores’ loyalty programs need to make sure that their engagement programs can withstand consumer purges by maintaining relevance and value to “future proof” their loyalty with the customer. In an industry dominated by the concept of convenience, fuel and C-store brands must focus on not being a random choice for customers but the only choice. 

Loyalty360, recognizing this issue, reached out to some of the top names in the loyalty marketing sector and talked with three experienced vendors about engaging customers, aligning advertising with the customer experience, mistakes to avoid, and how to offer meaningful values to customers. 


Future-Proofing Programs

Stuzo’s Marketing Specialist Sandra Sydlik notes that the pandemic shifted consumer behavior due to the general fear for safety, which led to prioritizing that and convenience when shopping. 

“To adapt to changing customer behavior, retailers need a single platform that is flexible and nimble enough to support loyalty, payments, and customer experience programs as they continue to evolve rapidly,” says Sydlik. “Further, the platform needs to seamlessly unify loyalty, payments, and customer experience data, enabling the retailer to activate that data in real-time from across the unified customer journey.”

Sydlik believes that this approach allows for consistently well-performing loyalty programs to remain competitive in the future, and her peers take a similar stance. 

Chris Barnett, Kobie’s Vice President of Strategic Consulting, believes the future is in mobile-first features and a solid customer identification strategy, in turn allowing the brands to repeat and regulate interactions while personalizing member touchpoints throughout the customer journey. 

Barnett references how one of Kobie’s C-Store clients “allows customers to order food and drinks on their mobile app and pick it up while filling their tanks. This simple but effective approach to customer loyalty allows for the brand to not interrupt daily habits customers have built over time, strengthening the consumer and business relationship”.

David Macey, Strategic Senior Manager for in Deloitte Consulting’s Customer Strategy practice, had similar sentiments as his colleagues.

“Fuel and C-store brands should ensure their loyalty program design is differentiated from competition and true to their brand purpose, while also driving an emotional connection with their target audience,” he says.

Macey goes a step beyond, however, and mentions that effectively activating the program in the marketplace is a key step. He says programs should be linked to emerging DTC channels to deliver the best end-to-end customer experience.

All three can agree: programs must be better optimized to stand out from the wave of programs available to customers. 


Matching Marketing with Customer Experience

“The key is to have a platform that supports cross-channel engagement and is able to deliver a consistent customer experience across all channels,” Sydlik says.

She believes that the “one-size-fits-all” approach is outdated and not enough anymore, as customers expect hyper-personalized experiences tailored to them. A seamless, consistent cross-channel customer journey will retain customers, build loyalty, and increase the share of wallet for fuel and C-stores, and having such a platform that is programmed to deliver offers and rewards to customers via channels they actually use would push brands ahead of competitors. 

Stuzo’s Wallet Steering System uses data from across loyalty, payments, and the customer experience to drive more visits, more gallons, bigger baskets, greater share of wallet, and increased customer lifetime value. She lists impressive and meaningful business outcomes the systems have generated, citing a 115% incremental lift in transaction volume and 461% incremental life inactive members, among many other accomplishments.

For Barnett, investment in marketing technology is key to delivering on the promise of elevated customer experiences.

By investing in martech that captures customer data, be it through member profiles or progressive profiling, and then leveraging AI to give messaging relevance, context, and timeliness for each customer, Barnett is confident brands can deliver personalized and accurate marketing to their customers. 

Macey looks at this issue from an organizational perspective. He stresses that the customer experience and marketing/advertising efforts must align to the same set of overall brand purpose and set of principles. This demonstrates a clear effort to be true to their word. To achieve this, he believes it should be spearheaded by a single executive leader, such as a CMO, or overseen by a group of leaders with clear governance across both efforts.


Bad Habits to Avoid

If there are one thing brands should stop doing, Sydlik advises, it is putting themselves first over the customer. Too often, brands are focused on the next purchase. Instead, she says they need to think about the customer, use data to inform their programs, and as a result, deliver offers and experiences the customers want to receive and engage with. 

“Get to know what the customer wants first,” Sydlik explains. “Figure out which channels work for them, then provide options and deliver messages via channels they prefer.” 

Barnett focuses on crafting an emotional loyalty-based relationship with the customer, something he feels fuel and C-store loyalty programs don't properly use. 

"[These] programs place almost exclusive focus on delivering rational, tangible value-like discounts, point-based rewards, and promotions," explains Barnett. "[They're] overlooking the important role of emotionally based program elements like soft benefits, surprise & delight, exclusive access, experiential rewards, and gamification." 

For Macey, it’s about offering competitive rewards. 

“This is increasingly important given the strong competition from grocery players, QSRs, and pure-play digital upstarts like GoPuff,” he says. “Customers have become accustomed to being rewarded well by leading programs and are likely to leave if your program’s rewards do not deliver comparable value.”

To put it simply, making your rewards competitive not only incentivizes customers to do business with your brand but eliminates competition in their minds, and retention should go up. Sydlik, Barnett, and Macey make it clear that brands must shift from a brand-first focus and go all-in on remembering the customer mindset and putting their emotions first. 


Meaningful and Lasting Value  

Sydlik believes that there are three approaches brands need to follow to drive meaningful and lasting customer value. First, streamlining enrollment and maximizing engagement by providing choice and flexibility in how customers interact with the brand will result in retaining more customers and build loyal behavior. Further, removing friction from the sign-up process increases program signups.

Second, she also says building a unified 360-member profile that includes personal, loyalty, transactional, behavioral, and share of wallet information of each customer is crucial. It enables brands to understand a consumer’s visit frequencies, purchase tendencies, and unique habits to personalize the customer experience. Sydlik offers a method for gathering customer information: Value Exchange. 

“[You must] ask customers for personal information in exchange for something such as bonus points or a free coffee or snack,” Sydlik says in explaining how the concept functions. Both consumer and brand get value out of this exchange.  

Third, Sydlik suggests brands need to use data purposefully, programmatically, and in real-time to deliver one-to-one offers and experiences that are personalized and tailored to the consumer receiving them. 

Barnett and Kobie address the need for C-stores to evolve based on changing customer shopping behaviors. As more customers opt for mobile order, delivery, and curbside pickup post-pandemic, C-stores must prepare for a broader set of payment options available for their loyal consumerbase to use. 

 

One of Kobie's C-store clients has taken this advice and used it to their advantage, strengthening emotional bonds via frictionless mobile ordering, amidst a variety of additional enhancements. 

Macey is much more succinct in his response, though he echoes much of Sydlik’s advice.

“Brands must focus on reinforcing their brand’s true end-to-end customer experience, centered in their differentiated brand purpose, to establish a relationship with customers that grows over time,” he says.

This line of thinking best summarizes all that the vendors have discussed on the topic: above all else, the customer journey must feel different compared to competitors, and this can be achieved through a variety of means available to brands, from improving flexibility in loyalty programs  to implementing a value exchange. 

With help from these three insightful vendors, fuel and C-store brands now have the tools necessary to future-proof their legacies. 

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