Brinker's loyal customers earn silver-spoon treatment

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Restaurant franchiser Brinker International is experimenting with something of a four-course loyalty menu with a program now being test-marketed in Denver.

Brinker's Eat & Enjoy Rewards is a cross-brand effort, distributing and redeeming reward points with a single card covering the franchiser's chains Chili's Grill & Bar, Romano's Macaroni Grill, On The Border Mexican Grill & Cantina and Maggiano's Little Italy.

A number of Eat & Enjoy program elements make it worth watching. The cross-brand effort gives customers a greater opportunity to earn rewards and greater choice when doing so, though the question is whether customers will express allegiance to the umbrella parent brand.

In addition, the Eat & Enjoy's rewards mix is inventive, relevant to the customer base at higher redemption levels and pretty exciting. Yes, the program offers blue-plate-special rewards - standards such as free desserts and entrees at lower redemption levels - but it layers on some exclusive delicacies as well.

For 22,500 points, members can redeem for the "Cucina Confidential," which the program's Web site describes as "a culinary adventure where our chef teaches your party how to prepare a delicious meal." And for a cool million points you get "The Ultimate Maggiano's Wedding Reception."

At first blush, accumulating 22,500 points seems to require a lot more spend than is actually needed. Eat & Enjoy Rewards members earn 10 points per dollar spent, whereas typical programs reward 1 point per dollar.

The danger here is that rewards can appear to be "point expensive." There's a significant perceived difference between spending 250 points for an entrée and spending 2,500 points for it, even though the same $250 spend earned those points in the first place.

The point inflation almost certainly results from a benefit designed to encourage long-term participation. After eight visits, or $300 of spend, members are elevated to the Silver Spoon level, which entitles customers to accelerated earn 15 points per dollar of spend.

That explains a 10-per-dollar versus a 1-per-dollar earn base rate. Using the latter, a 50 percent jump in earn velocity at the Silver Spoon level would have thrown customers and rewards-point bean-counters into dreaded decimal land, unusual in the points-reward business and potentially confusing to customers.

This added Silver Spoon level in itself exemplifies a solid practice for program design. Loyalty program tiers provide goals and therefore motivation for continued participation, and they satisfy customer expectations of better treatment for their devoted loyalty.

In fact, a further tier might do additional work for the Eat & Enjoy program and allow for point acceleration calculations that would not require "point inflation." Advice to loyalty marketers, in general, is don't dangle just one carrot.

Brinker shows the power of multiple carrots with the rewards mix: appetizers of easily achievable, low-redemption rewards like gift cards and then the rich program desserts of the exclusive experiential rewards. It further demonstrates multiple-carrot power by not duplicating a mistake made by some programs, that is, populating the next level with the same as before but more of it.

Granted, in Eat & Enjoy's case, 15 points per dollar of spend is essentially "the same as before but more of it," but Silver Spoon also rewards members with other benefits, such as a sort of voucher earned every three visits, redeemable for next-available-table seating on busy nights. The privilege of being ushered swiftly to the next available table provides differentiation from the benefits of the base tier.

Take the opportunity to consider program design in restaurant terms. Offer a range of choices on the rewards menu and a next-course progression through tiering. At each succeeding stage, add clear benefit, privilege, recognition and uniqueness. The base membership level is the appetizer; the elevated levels are increasingly tasty desserts. They may look like carrots, but for marketers and customers alike, they taste pretty sweet.

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