How an ad from 1987 still influences eCommerce loyalty programs

August 28, 2023

American Express established the "Membership has its perks" rewards program in 1987, which continues to serve as a model for eCommerce loyalty programs to this day because of it's unmatched deals and discounts on travel, dining, shopping and every day purchases.

As one of the first companies to recognize the potential of customer loyalty and reward programs, American Express created a the formula for success by offering customers more value and more options to get rewards that worked for every type of person. Love to travel? They've got deals on flights, hotels and cruises. Love to eat? Get access to tables at restaurants that are never available. Love to knit? They've even got you covered with unique discounts at boutique stores. By providing exclusive and personalized rewards, American Express designed their rewards program to make customers feel valued and appreciated. As a result of their innovative approach to customer loyalty, American Express experienced a massive surge in signups for the card.  

You might be thinking, I don't have the ability to offer as wide of a range as Amex for my eCommerce loyalty program. And you're right, you don't. But you also don't need to serve as wide of a variety of people as Amex, you only need to offer rewards that will matter to YOUR customers.

A new perspective: "Members" not customers

Is American Express a credit card company? Yes. But former CMO John Hayes will tell you that American Express is, first and foremost, a service company.

"Not only is it a provider of financial services, but also a purveyor of entertainment, networking and business growth tools for cardholders and potential customers alike."

How do Hayes and his marketing team push the boundaries of marketing as service? By fostering workplace curiosity, taking up their customers’ interests and extending benefits to non-members.

What's the first step in creating a rewards program that acts as a service? According to John Hayes, it begins by being curious. It’s important to “generate a level of curiosity about what’s happening in the world and what your customers care about” Hayes says.

This same principle is true for your eCommerce loyalty program. You need to be curious about what rewards will be interesting enough for you customers to make that extra purchase or share that referral code. Be curious about what matters to your customers so you can better serve them.

Reward often, remind constantly, and make redemption easy  

American Express found quick success with their perks program because they not only offered a wide variety of rewards, they made them easy to redeem. They even take it a step further and tell you when you're not taking enough advantage of it with emails, SMS reminders, and on-site rewards balances on almost every page. And of course we shouldn't forget that using your hard earned points only takes 1-click.

You can find the same kind of success for your eCommerce loyalty program by following their example. Setup your rewards program so that they can quickly earn and see the fruits of their labor without having to spend months building towards a prize. DTC sellers who want to appeal to young shoppers, who typically have less patience, should particularly take note of this.

Another easy way to make sure that customers are reminded about their rewards points is by embedding point balances for logged-in shoppers throughout your site and by sending email and SMS reminders of ways to earn and redeem rewards.

Marketing as service, not a sales tactic

Moving on to exactly how American Express markets differently, Hayes stresses the importance of taking interest in his customers’ lives outside of their AmEx card use. Much like a new relationship, talking about yourself too much or serving your own interests often leads to dead ends and disappointment. But actively understanding your customers’ lives outside of your product or service, and finding the footholds where you can be useful, is a mark of true marketing-as-service, says Hayes, and will lead to customer loyalty.

“You’re going to serve businesses and people. You need to talk to them about their life, not what they’re going to use to pay for something.”

This thinking should not only inform the content that your customers see, but also the additional perks that your eCommerce loyalty program provides.

The American Express formula for your eCommerce Loyalty Program

If you've read this far, it's safe to assume you probably have an Amex and know exactly what we've been referring to. Pay attention the next time they let you know about a new perk, a surprising place you see exactly how many points you have to redeem, or a completely unique offering and how that makes you feel about something as mundain as a credit card.

Learn from the best, apply it to your rewards program, and enjoy the benefits that come from having customers who are loyal to your store because of the loyalty you show them.