Building Brands and Loyalty: Why Your Incentive Program Needs to Change 

By Animate Growth Partners 

Multiple studies suggest that more and more business value lies not in tangible products and output, but in the intangible assets of a business, such as human capital.1 The implication for incentive program owners is significant. Programs can’t simply be designed as purely transactional activities, in which companies exchange points and trips for selling more widgets. Rather, programs need to appeal to more complex human needs. In the process they need to recognize and nurture behaviors, outcomes and relationships. 

According to TrendWatching, the “radical transparency” of modern businesses now means the brand is no longer a set of stories, images and words you display carefully on the outside of your opaque business box, but rather your brand is what customers view when they stare carefully into your organizational glass walls and see your internal culture.2

Brands are reflected not only by internal culture, but also by selling organizations and the perceptions of buyers. Recent research published in the Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice suggests that in sales audiences, the highest driver of incremental sales effort is not the extrinsic motivation of an incentive program. Rather, the level of emotional connection with the brand, in conjunction with both the individual’s intrinsic motivation and a sense of competence to represent the brand are the strongest leading indicators of sales effort and actual results.3

Benefit of emotional connections 

The emotional connections to the brand have a greater impact on relationships and long-term loyalty than traditional incentive programs. Today’s incentive programs need to be about ways to cultivate competencies and relationships. The people in your selling networks crave positive connections with other buyers and sellers. They also crave the professional and personal development that will make them better contributors. Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria brilliantly uncovered the importance of these important human needs and their importance to the motivation equation in their 2003 work “Driven: How Human Nature Shapes our Choices.” It’s not just our acquisitive self that is motivated by incentives. We all have equally important drives to bond with others and to create. Incentive program owners are just now coming to understand the importance of these drives and how to incorporate them into incentive program design.

Creating engagement strategies 

How can B2B and consumer loyalty programs be adapted to the new reality that relationships with brands is what will sustain loyalty and advocacy? To build a program that aligns with and supports broader company brand and mission requires the program owner to think beyond the program as a short-term activity with a financial focus, but rather as an ongoing strategy to engage the people who buy and sell your stuff. Executing the shift requires modifying your program design to gain an understanding of what is unique about the people in your audience and creating approaches that will engage their drives to bond and create. 

Incentive programs are about building relationships and building competencies, not just providing rewards. A wonderful analogy that speaks to the importance of purpose, brand and vision is the story of the bricklayer working on what would eventually become a masterpiece of Gothic architecture. Asked what he was doing, the bricklayer responded not with “I am building a wall,” but rather with “I am building a cathedral.” While not divinely inspired, incentive programs today need to be inspired by a brand vision, enabled by competencies and behaviors to live into the mission, and connected with others in a web of relationships. 

If you are looking for resources to help you change your incentive program to create the relationships that brands that will sustain loyalty, visit the IESP Directory.

1 Incentive Research Foundation 2018 Trends Study, 
3 Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice