Loyalty360 Executive Spotlight: Emily Merkle, Phaedon

Loyalty360 met with Emily Merkle, Senior Vice President, Analytics and Data Science at Phaedon, formerly known as ICF Next, to discuss the essential characteristics of successful loyalty programs, enhancing the customer experience, and harnessing data to drive loyalty. Phaedon fuses analytics with strategy to help brands personalize and enrich the customer journey.   
Can you tell us about your role at Phaedon and what makes the company unique?
Merkle: I lead the Analytics and Data Science Team at Phaedon. The name might be new in the loyalty sphere, but the company and our employees are not. Our clients include four of the 10 largest hotel loyalty programs in the country and notable brands across other industries.   

We leverage our deep expertise in loyalty marketing to revolutionize how our clients engage their customers. We do this by sparking customer participation in promoting the brand. We help brands foster deep emotional loyalty and create brand advocates. 

What makes us unique is we are a strategy- and analytics-first agency. Everything we do to support brands flows from that foundation.

As for my team, we help our clients understand their customers and the most effective ways to engage them. We provide actionable insights that brands use to optimize and personalize their loyalty programs at scale to drive business results. We do this through customized solutions and our suite of analytics products.

What’s the one thing that influences a great customer experience the most?
Merkle: The key ingredient is knowing your customers well enough to treat them as individuals. To do this, brands must be highly intentional about analyzing data and applying it to their marketing efforts. Personalization can only come about by using data intentionally, and personalization allows authentic messaging — this builds trust and loyalty.

What are some challenges to using data analytics to generate insights for brands?
Merkle: The brands we work with continue to face challenges related to data silos. Their data passes between different tech systems, and they’re searching for ways to harness it across the ecosystem to create personalized experiences. In the past, the problem was lack of customer information, which has been largely solved. Now, brands must integrate all these data points and apply them to the customer experience at scale.

Can the design of a customer loyalty program address some of these data challenges?
Merkle: Yes, in some respects. A customer loyalty program can have built-in tools and opportunities to make effective use of data. It can ask the customers for information to improve their experience. The brand can learn what makes a great customer experience by testing and adjusting, and then apply those learnings to the greater customer base.  
Are there any outdated practices holding loyalty programs back?
Merkle: The one practice that needs to go away is offering generalized rewards. Brands must give customers a choice of rewards that are meaningful to them at a given point in the customer journey. That’s what drives engagement.

In your experience working with brands, what are some approaches that have made loyalty programs successful?
Merkle: We completed a program redesign for a large grocery retailer. It was successful because we married strategy with analytics from the start. The brand had an enormous amount of customer data, which we deployed to develop and test various strategies. At Phaedon, we use a patent-pending economic modeling approach that allows us to simulate more than 60 scenarios and test earnings and redemption options. We tested different features and benefits to determine how to optimize the program for increased customer engagement and loyalty. The result was a 2X return on sales.

What was your most recent ah-ha moment when you discovered something about customer experience, and why was it so memorable?
Merkle: When traveling with my family, I realized the value rewards can create in a customer’s life. I use my airline miles to vacation with my children to share new experiences and create memories. I redeem miles for flights, resort stays, and even my children’s favorite drinks at the airport. The airline gives me rewards that make a real difference in my life, which makes me a more loyal customer.

What loyalty program do you admire most?
Merkle: I’m a member of outdoor retailer REI’s loyalty program, and I love the simplicity of it. It’s a somewhat non-traditional loyalty program in that REI focuses on building communities around shared values. There are communities for sustainability, photography, health, and more. REI addresses these different areas of interest with its program. They deliver relevant online content across communities in addition to rewards. Before I go hiking or on vacation, I check out their travel advice, gear guides, and packing lists.

REI also has a gear trade-in program that’s especially useful for customers with children. I can buy my son a bike and trade it in for a new one when he outgrows it. REI’s extended return window came in handy when my daughter outgrew her ski boots before she even had chance to use them. Now that’s a brand that knows its customers.  

What’s your passion outside of work?
Merkle: I love coaching my daughter’s softball team. It enables me to be part of something that’s important to her. I enjoy teaching the girls not only about the game but also how to be good teammates, winners, and losers. Those are skills that last a lifetime. I watch the girls bond, grow, and become great humans.

What is your advice to up-and-coming loyalty marketers? 
Merkle: My personal motto is a failed program or campaign isn’t really a failure. It’s a necessary component of success. Experiencing failure enables you to learn and progress down the path to success.

Loyalty is not a department or program. It’s bigger than that. Building loyalty means doing what’s right by the customer — giving them a great experience. Keep your focus on the customer, and you will succeed. 

Quick-fire Questions:
What is your favorite word?

What is your least favorite word?

What excites you?
Collaboration and solving problems.

What do you find tiresome?
Decision made in a vacuum.

What inspired you to study economics?
My high school economics teacher.

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
Cake decorator.

What profession would you avoid?

Who inspired you to become the person you are today?
My parents and grandfather.

What do you typically think about at the end of the day?
What I’ve accomplished.

How do you want to be remembered by your friends and family?
As someone who made the world better by being part of it.   

Recent Content

Membership and Pricing

Videos and podcasts

Membership and Pricing