The Coming Branded-Currency Revolution

Retailers need to think about coupons, gift cards, and loyalty points not only as three separate tools, but as different forms of Branded Currency.

Coupons. Gift cards. Loyalty points. These tried-and-true tools of the retail trade might not be as sexy as other forms of marketing. But together they account for more than $165 billion in purchasing power ($110 billion in gift cards purchased, $48 billion in loyalty points earned, and more than $5 billion in product coupons redeemed). That’s almost as much as total e-commerce sales.

These instruments share a common objective: to influence purchase decisions by equipping consumers with incremental spending power for specific brands and retailers. But consumers use them independently and individually (combining their value, when possible, takes a lot of manual effort), and store them in different places — often in drawers or folders where they lay forgotten and unused.

This is changing as coupons, gift cards, and loyalty points all become digital — and, more important, mobile. Mobile enables all of this purchasing power to converge in one place, and potentially be used interchangeably and collectively, always within easy reach for consumers.

What does this mean for retailers and brands? The mistake would be to think that they can keep doing what they have always done, but just add a little digital to it. Instead, retailers need to think about coupons, gift cards, and loyalty points not only as three separate tools, but as different forms of Branded Currency.

Economists define currency as a store of value and a medium of exchange. All of these instruments are stores of value, and by going digital and mobile, they become far more effective mediums of exchange.

The first wave of this convergence has made it easier for consumers to use their coupons or points for payment. Card-linked offers enable consumers to load coupons to their credit cards or loyalty accounts in advance of purchase. Valid offers are automatically applied as a credit when consumers’ cards are scanned at the point of sale. Consumers like it because they don’t need to remember or present individual coupons. Another approach is Shop-with-Points. As an example, Amazon enables consumers to use their credit card loyalty points as a way to pay for purchases on the site. Shoppers can see their balance and apply their points as easily as using a gift card or credit card.

Where the first wave made possible convertibility, the second wave introduces much greater convenience. Mobile wallets, like Apple’s Passbook, bring coupons, gift cards, and loyalty cards together in one place without the constraints of a physical wallet. This innovation is good, but it’s a bit of a horseless carriage, still tied to the mental model of a wallet. Consumers still need to manually figure out which instruments can be combined and which cannot, prioritize them based on expirations, calculate the math on their own, and then present them at point-of-sale one at a time.

The third wave will be the mobile portfolio manager, the automobile to the mobile wallet’s horseless carriage, which marries the convertibi…

Read the complete post in Harvard Business Review

About the Author

Mark Boncheck @markbonchek
Mark Bonchek is Chief Catalyst at Orbit & Co., a designer of social engagement strategies.