Voucher Culture

What makes vouchers so popular as a reward for clients and employees? In a world of paperless efficiency and e-commerce, it’s their ability to provide a memorable experience.

Empty your pockets. Go on, do it right now. Spread it out on the desk – what do you find? Probably a collection of keys, plastic cards perhaps, ranging from credit and debit cards to maybe a Tesco Clubcard or another retailer reward scheme and, of course, money. Coins of all sizes, usually small change, and the odd note or two – with luck one of those purple ones with Sir Edward Elgar looking the personification of Edwardian pomp.

Despite plastic cards and electronic trading, we still need the “folding stuff”. It’s not only the practical nature of paper money – it doesn’t feel right putting a lunchtime sandwich, packet of crisps and a Diet Tango on your Barclaycard – but our basic need for something we can hold and touch. If you believe that we can do without paper money, look at the queues for the ATM machines on your local high street at the weekend.

And what about the paperless office? A fine concept, but no fir tree in Finland has had much chance to celebrate its transition from concept to reality. “The only paperless office I know,” someone once confessed to me, “is the gents toilet down the corridor from my department.”

What’s all this got to do with vouchers? Quite a lot. Though the world may have sobered up a little after its brief binge of dot-com madness, electronic forms of trading are very much with us and will continue to develop. That will include online reward schemes. But for most people, the simplest reward to give and receive is the paper voucher. Employees may be able to collect points – but when they want to spend them they’ll probably have to hand a paper voucher over at the counter. E-commerce has boosted the voucher industry, with innovations such as online ordering through dedicated websites making it easier to access vouchers.

Putting aside our desire to have something to fold up and stick in our back pocket, the evidence shows the voucher market is booming. Whitbread Leisure Vouchers has achieved record levels of business over the past year, a growth trend which looks likely to set new record levels this year. The industry as a whole is experiencing this growth. It isn’t attributable only to a booming economy – and even if there is a correction in the market soon, the voucher sector will continue to grow.

What is it that keeps this sector buoyant? Why do paper-based reward schemes continue to score over other forms of reward?

Simplicity is obviously one of their greatest strengths. They are easy to administer and can be tailored to fit a wide range of reward and motivational programmes.

Their diversity means they can offer something for almost everyone – from the sales manager to the receptionist, and across all ages and both sexes. That’s important when devising motivational programmes or even offering vouchers as an incentive. All too often people think with their marketing hats firmly pulled down over their eyes and ears. They offer rewards they think they ought to offer. But employees – from those on the top corridor to those in the post-room – are human and respond to rewards which appeal to their consumer instincts.

What would you rather have, cash or reward? Obviously a bit of extra money at the end of the month does appeal, but if it gets spent on the gas bill or a new pair of work shoes, it won’t be seen or remembered as anything special. By Monday morning it’ll be forgotten, along with the reason why it was given. Where’s the motivation in that, for employee or employer?

But give someone the opportunity to share a cracking day out with their whole family, buy a romantic meal for two at a well-known restaurant or enjoy a relaxing weekend away at a top class country hotel, and the significance of the event turns the reward into a memorable experience. Rewards should be something to remember – an experience someone might want to repeat.

Word of mouth

Employees will be more likely to talk about such a reward and share their experience with their office colleagues and friends (as long as it’s been a good one, but more of that later). Though eating out isn’t the birthdays and highdays experience it once was for many people, it’s still something people might talk about in the office – after all, when was the last time you discussed how you paid your gas bill? Although colleagues might comment on your new shoes, they’ll probably be more eager to find out how your weekend for two at that hotel in Devon went.

Vouchers work – and have grown – because the organisations behind them see them as an integral part of developing their brands. Imagine going into a store, selecting what you want, handing over the voucher and receiving a blank look from the sales assistant followed by a lengthy, very public chat between the assistant’s manager and head office on the phone before they accept your vouchers. You’ll not only never use vouchers again, but you may well avoid that store in future, too.

But this doesn’t happen because companies have recognised that the voucher must have value beyond the monetary denomination printed on the front of it – and that’s a brand issue.

A voucher is an extension of the brand that’s behind it. It’s an opportunity for someone to sample the offer, because if they enjoy their meal out when it’s offered as a reward, they may go back next time they want to eat – and be willing to pay from their own pocket this time.

Marketing tool

Not only has this experience heightened the perceived value of the voucher, it has also made it a marketing tool for many of those who offer voucher schemes. Nobody would abandon their marketing programme overnight and put all their advertising into vouchers, but those who do operate schemes recognise that they can add significant extra value.

Another factor in the survival of vouchers in the e-commerce age is their versatility – they can be used quickly for a tactical campaign, or built into a major longer-term reward scheme. They can be used to motivate staff or to encourage customers or prospects – and the same voucher scheme can be used with both groups, it is merely positioned differently. Employers can use them to reward good performance or money-saving ideas, and encourage sales. They can give major prizes or small treats, or build an entire programme which takes in all these options.

Various applications

The versatility extends to promotional use. Clients can offer them as an incentive rather than a branded sports bag or pen set. Their ability to appeal to all ages and social groups means they are not restricted to certain types of offer or promotion. As a reward for taking a car test drive or for applying for a life insurance quote, vouchers are suitable whatever the sector, scheme or promotion being run.

Employers should draw on the knowledge and experience of voucher providers to help them tailor and shape the most appropriate scheme for their employees or customers. That won’t take account only of the simple mechanics, but should also cover the best way to match the scheme to their brand identity and values so they get something which complements their brand.

Suppliers should be able to provide examples of other work they’ve done and how they’ve helped to ensure the branding of schemes works with the promotion or motivation scheme.

Simplicity, accessibility, value and memorability – plus a dose of solid brand-building. No wonder these little branded slips of paper are proving resilient and popular. There are plenty of competitors to the voucher, but few seem to be able to offer so much to so many and so easily. The future for the voucher looks secure for some considerable time to come.

Bill Brown is general manager of Whitbread Leisure Vouchers

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