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Many restaurant brands tend to oversimplify the concept by limiting the experience to simple points schemes or gimmicky badge-and-leaderboard mechanics that collectively offer little incentive to drive customer behavior. 

3 ways customer loyalty is broken, according to a video game designer

Too many brands are oversimplifying their loyalty programs.

Customer loyalty initiatives are one of the biggest competitive advantages keeping the world’s most successful restaurant brands like Starbucks, Dunkin’, and Chipotle ahead of the pack. A properly designed and well-supported loyalty program drives engagement, recognition, and satisfaction and generates powerful and predictive data about your customers. But unfortunately, many restaurant brands tend to oversimplify the concept by limiting the experience to simple points schemes or gimmicky badge-and-leaderboard mechanics that collectively offer little incentive to drive customer behavior. 

Below are three ways that the restaurant loyalty landscape today is broken, along with perspectives on compelling gameplay and engagement mechanics being used by today's top brands to drive superior customer outcomes.

1. No fun

Everybody likes to play. Play is universal. From it, we derive satisfaction, enrich ourselves, and socialize. The average marketer overlooks opportunities to use playful engagement to foster deeper customer relationships and apply them in ways that very gently and subtly modify customer behavior to create more memorable and meaningful moments that strengthen the customer/brand relationship.

As a result, most restaurant loyalty programs are fundamentally boring, unappealing, cookie-cutter experiences largely indistinguishable from one another. They rely heavily on rudimentary transactional mechanics (i.e. earning and spending points) while overlooking more powerful concepts that can genuinely strengthen the customer/brand relationship that create “moments that matter” through game-like mechanics, collaboration, competition, and advanced engagement mechanics.

2. Incoherent strategies

You wouldn't ask a hairdresser to install your home theater system. So why would you get a marketer to design your restaurant's customer engagement experience? In the hands of an expert, engagement and "gamification" pathways become the engines to drive deep customer-brand relationships. When these mechanics are skillfully applied in the proper contexts, relationships can be maximized and the greatest transformative potential becomes unlocked.

It begins at the customer touchpoints, such as in-restaurant experience, menu interactions, and physical check-ins, and extends outwards all the way through to social media programs, partners, and traditional media. By enhancing the customer journey with tried-and-tested game-like mechanics, such as questing, customization, progression tracking, collection, and others, you can gently modify behaviors, tease out preferences, and expose genuine desires that, in turn, create calls to action that delight and satisfy customers. This simultaneously helps build a better understanding of the customers and creates methods to positively influence their behavior. 

Engagement strategies can have a strong influence on overall customer satisfaction and health of the customer-brand relationship. 

3. Shoddy gamification

When gamification is done correctly, it creates playful and voluntary customer engagement that drives healthy and reciprocal brand/customer relationships. But too many brands throw out random engagement tactics without an overall vision. Even worse, others throw in every gameplay mechanic under the kitchen sink while not realizing the conflicts that can be created. 

For example, let's say you've diligently worked to build a strong sense of collaborative and cooperative spirit within your restaurant's customer community. Then one day, you decide to "gamify" them for fun using points and leaderboards. Look out! You might be creating an irreconcilable conflict! Leaderboards are competitive mechanics. They track progress relative to other customers and invite comparisons, sometimes in ways that fly counter to the spirit of collaboration. This misstep can be potentially destructive to the community of customers your restaurant has attracted and lead to active disengagement and loyalty backlash.

You need to evaluate the suitability of each possible gamification tactic within the context of an overall strategy. Different circumstances require a different mix of mechanics, and the choice of mechanics is influenced by brand personality, type of business, and the business objectives hoping to be achieved.

The public's disenchantment with loyalty programs is growing. Rudimentary and utilitarian engagement mechanics like points schemes, unpersonalized offers, and high-fructose gamification are being increasingly perceived with suspicion and usually do very little to captivate restaurant customers. Worse still, you usually can’t even tell most loyalty programs apart from one another. And once you can't tell them apart, they stop being able to provide your company with a competitive advantage. But expertly designed and supported advanced engagement models — using tried and tested gameplay design — can foster strong, lasting customer-brand relationships. Done properly, the result will be industry-leading engagement, recognition, satisfaction and powerful and predictive data about your customers.

Have a question you'd like to ask a game designer about improving your customer loyalty and engagement? Send your questions to [email protected] with the subject "Ask a Game Designer" and Steve will answer them for you in an upcoming article.

Steve-Bocska.pngAUTHOR BIO

Steve Bocska isn't just another marketer who has learned a thing or two about loyalty, gamification, and engagement. He is an experienced and innovative game designer and producer (Disney, Electronic Arts, Sega, Vivendi, Ubisoft) who approaches the marketing field with fresh concepts and technologies that actually work. Steve has been repairing broken loyalty programs as CEO of PUG Interactive ( since 2008. His company has engineered the industry's most mature and advanced online engagement and gamification platform, the Picnic Customer Engagement Engine.

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