Recipe for the graceful loyalty program exit

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Paging through a new book called "The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived," I was disappointed that Betty Crocker is not listed. The Marlboro Man and Joe Camel make appearances (and in fact are the only mythical advertising personas listed). How could the authors deny the influence of wholesome, fictional Betty on households and, pertinent to our topic in this space, on loyalty marketing?

General Mills, Betty's "employer," began slipping coupons for flatware in bags of flour more than 70 years ago. Those coupons migrated to the outside of product packaging by the end of the 1930s, and the promotion officially became "Betty Crocker Catalog Points" in 1992. This was a pioneering and venerable frequent-buyer program, but on Dec. 15, 2006, the pages of the Betty Crocker Points rewards catalog were closed.

During its 75 years, the program in its various forms succeeded at a level that marketers would sell their grandma's secret pfeffernusse recipe for. Homemakers had a relationship with Betty; they were loyal and active. It's said that in decades past, many would redeem for discounts on individual pieces of flatware, collecting the entire set over a period of time.

Ironically-or fittingly, depending on how you look at it-the loyalty strategy pioneer was also an exit strategy pioneer. Critical to designing how you're going to build a program is designing how you're going to dismantle it should the time come. How will you step out gracefully without alienating the very loyalists the program is meant to court? It's said that the Betty Crocker program would give collectors two years' warning before discontinuing a tableware pattern to give collectors enough time to finish off sets in progress. And when it came time to discontinue the program itself because of changing buying habits, the company employed similar exit tactics:

Long warnings. The discontinuation was announced early in 2006, and the company set Dec. 15 as the deadline for redemptions. Betty Crocker would publish one last catalog, and the company actively encouraged redemption before the deadline passed and before stock on individual items ran out.

Unexpected benefits. Realizing that collectors would still have unredeemed points after the catalog officially closed, Betty Crocker arranged a deal to allow collectors to convert unused points into discounts at for a time. Such an arrangement offered additional relevant rewards. Betty Crocker worked hard to make sure that collectors realized as much worth from their efforts as possible.

Planned migration. General Mills now concentrates on its ten-year-old Box Tops for Education program, which had raised $175 million for schools by mid 2006. The Box Tops effort encourages loyalty with a different motivation. It nourishes minds instead of tummies and can also inspire customers to feel a friendly connection to the brand.

As for "The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived," I nominate Betty to be high on the list when the sequel comes out. How can we neglect the person that Fortune named the second most famous woman in America in 1945? And I wouldn't be surprised if the most famous, Eleanor Roosevelt, collected Betty's coupons.

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