Loyalty Stories 20: The Paradox of AI and Humanization – Charlie Hills

On the twentieth episode of Antavo’s Loyalty Stories video podcast we’re joined by Charlie Hills, who reflects on trends in loyalty programs

Antavo’s cover for its Loyalty Stories video podcast with Charlie Hills


Our loyalty expert of the week (and for the twentieth episode of the Loyalty Stories podcast) is Charlie Hills, Chief Strategy Officer at Mando.

The interview for this podcast has been a valuable source for Antavo’s Global Customer Loyalty Report 2024. Make sure to download it for over 30 statistics on loyalty program trends. 

This week, with Charlie’s expert insights, we take a look at several innovative industry-leading loyalty programs such as Vodafone’s VeryMe Rewards, Tesco’s Clubcard, and the outstanding capabilities of the coffee industry when it comes to understanding and offering solutions for real customer pain points. Charlie also explains why it’s imperative to be prepared for change.

Highlights from our conversation with Charlie:

  • How loyalty programs can accommodate real-life challenges
  • Simultaneously juggling AI and the need for human connection
  • The changes and multitude of possibilities in loyalty mechanics
  • Why simplicity and innovation are the two most important keywords

Learn more:

Podcast Transcription
Charlie Hawker

Welcome to Loyalty Stories, Antavo’s podcast on customer loyalty and loyalty programs. I’m Charlie Hawker, Partner Manager for UKI, Benelux, and Nordics. Antavo is a technology vendor that powers loyalty programs all over the world. We help various great businesses such as KFC and Benefit Cosmetics, as well as global automotive, fashion companies, and other amazing verticals. 

In this podcast, Loyalty Stories, we dive into the trends around customer loyalty and loyalty programs. We talk with industry experts around the world to pick their brain to learn what’s next for loyalty. 

Today’s guest is Charlie Hills from Mando-Connect. Hi, Charlie, how are you doing?

Charlie Hills

I’m very well, thank you for having me.

Charlie Hawker

Of course. For the audience, would you mind introducing both yourself, your role and the company you work for?

Charlie Hills

Of course. Hello, everyone. Delighted to be here. My name’s Charlie Hills. I’m the Chief Strategy Officer of Mando-Connect, and we are WPP’s Loyalty Specialist Partnerships and Reward Agency. And we believe that when brands and loyalty programs work together, they can achieve more for less.  And we work with some fantastic brands in the automotive sector, in the retail sector, in the petrol sector, in the telecommunications sector and in grocery across the UK and European markets.

We also publish a lot of research and thought leadership material. And lastly, but not leastly, we’ve won lots of fabulous awards. And I’m really proud to say that for the last two years with our fantastic clients, we’ve won the Best Program in Western Europe, two years in a row at the International Loyalty Awards. So delighted to be here today and hopefully got lots of stuff to share.

Charlie Hawker

Thank you very much for that intro. That was fantastic. Really looking forward to kind of diving into hopefully many of those areas. And it just must be fascinating from where you sit sitting across so many verticals, in your role in the strategy, header strategy is just, yeah, I think we’re going to get into some really, really good conversations today. So looking forward to.

Charlie Hills

Oh, that’s one of the greatest things about partnerships. It’s a belief that we share with Antavo, you know, that they’re really important. They need to be right up at the top of the agenda and on a personal level. I love it because you obviously we get to see so many sectors because we get to work on behalf of our clients and programs, but also with all our reward partners, our acquisition partners, our innovation partners, our revenue generating partners, so you really do get a broad view of the world.

Charlie Hawker

Excellent. So getting to know a bit more about yourself and loyalty in general with yourself. What’s your favourite loyalty programme and why?

Charlie Hills

Oh, I love this question. I think I don’t have a single favourite loyalty programme and probably if I did, I’d be in the wrong role, because I think naturally my role as a partnership strategist is to look at all the programmes and identify the really exciting programmes. 

So my favourite programmes include the likes of VeryMe Rewards from Vodafone. We’ve worked on that programme since the very beginning and what I love about that programme is that it really understands what people want and connects them to it through incredible rewards and partnerships, everything from Glastonbury tickets to the chance to go to Wimbledon, to coffees, to treats, to candy kittens. That program really understands its audience. 

But I also love programs like Tesco Clubcard, really interesting, fantastic British program, always at the cutting edge of loyalty innovation. One of the first big programs in our market to do member pricing. One of the first big programs to do subscription. Yeah. Really interesting program. 

And then I also love lots of, you know, programs that are coming through in new sectors. adiClub is a really great program. I love how they’ve taken a classic points and tiering mechanic and made it cool. I love how Lidl Plus went into grocery and completely disrupted the model in our market. I love how Voxie dropped, you know, no rules whatsoever, surprising its audience with cool rewards and partners through social. 

And I particularly love the coffee sector, partly because I’m completely addicted to caffeine, but also because I love how that sector has gone, you know, one above all the others and identified what its real customer connection points are and also real customer pain points, and actually address those and built those into the user experience of the program. 

Caffè Nero is one of my favorite programs. It’s just my go-to now. I don’t even take a card now when I go to pick up my local coffee, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that. So yeah, I think there are some brilliant programs out there and some really exciting developments.

Charlie Hawker

No, it’s fascinating to hear kind of that kind of you’re seeing it through a personal but also a professional lens whenever you’re in, whenever you’re with a loyalty program and it’s kind of that, you respect kind of what they’ve done, but also the ambition behind that as well. So yeah, I think that’s fascinating from your role. 

You know how complex these things are to pull off, right? You’ve done it. You’ve been there and done it. So I think there’s some real ambition. Yeah, that’s fantastic. Thank you.

So if we move back to kind of more around your work and some of the stuff that you’re most proud of within your career, it can be in this role, it can be from previous roles, from wherever, but feel free to, you can name the client, you can keep them, it’s fine. I’d love to hear a bit more about that from you.

Charlie Hills

That’s a lovely question. I think throughout my career, I started, I came out of university with an economics degree and then went into marketing. And I think from that very first sort of moment of, you know, I started at Boots actually with Advantage Card and kind of developing from there. 

I think what’s always carried through and one of the things I’m personally most proud of is that rigor of data, insight and partnerships. And that’s built into everything, every component of MandoConnect, everything that we do for our clients and for our thought leadership work is backed by really robust data and insight that we can use, that we then think is actionable in much the same way as the Antavo research. It’s useful, it’s not information for information’s sake. It’s right, we’ve learned this, now what do we do differently as a consequence? So I think that’s a thread.

But on a personal note, I think what I’m most proud of is the teams that I’ve been part of. I think loyalty is a collaborative effort. You know, there’s a platform provider, there’s a creative and communication specialist, there’s a client, there’s all the internal stakeholders, there’s the rewards, the partners, the suppliers. It’s a huge ecosystem. 

And I think that’s really interesting thing that you don’t always see in other marketing disciplines. They can have quite a narrow view, whereas loyalty has a very broad view. And I think that’s one of the things I’m most proud of, you know, the teams I’ve been part of. 

And then I also think there’s some really interesting programs and brands that I’ve been privileged to work on throughout my career, you know, big programs, little programs, new programs, legacy programs. You know, we’ve opened programs, we’ve closed programs.

We’ve changed programs, we’ve done 2.0, 3.0 evolution journeys. And I think that constant journey that loyalty is on, it never sits still in loyalty. I’m very proud of that as well, that kind of constant innovation that we all work on and all see.

Charlie Hawker

Yeah, it’s definitely something, getting back to your point around kind of the loyalty community. It really is a community. Like everyone’s working to do good, genuinely useful things for their clients, their businesses. And sometimes, as you mentioned, that is closing a program, it’s revamping it. It’s really looking at it from, you know, a blank slate and then kind of building it up again. 

I think it’s really interesting and it’s you know, you’ve got years of experience and they’ve experienced it all. So yeah, that’s, that’s really fascinating. And you’re right. It does come down to the people as well. It is a very special group of people that we get to, we get to work with. 

So, and then if we kind of take a kind of a look back now around some significant changes that we’ve seen across the loyalty industry in the last, I don’t know, five, two, five years, something like that. And what are the kind of the big changes that you’ve seen play out in that time?

Charlie Hills

Yeah, I mean, what a period of time. I think that the natural place to start always when you’re thinking about loyalty programs is to think about the audience and what they’ve been through and what members across markets and sectors and brands have experienced in that period of time. 

And I think seismic change probably is a misnomer. I think it’s been even more significant than that. I mean, who would have thought that we’d be talking about a war in the Ukraine that’s had such a huge effect, the cost of living crisis, climate disasters, I just think there’s been so much, not even mentioning a global pandemic that we’ve seen in the last five years, it’s just been huge for our audiences. 

And I think every time our audience starts to get back on kilter, there’s another challenge that’s come in at that sort of macro level. So I think that’s probably the place to start that we’ve not seen that kind of level of change or that severity of impact for our audiences. 

And I think programs have had to pivot continuously and look ahead continuously. So I talked about one of the programmes that we’re really proud to work on, Very Me Rewards from Vodafone. In that last few years that programme has been around, it’s dealt with a pandemic. So actually those rewards and benefits were all tailored to actually an indoor lifestyle than lockdowns. And then as our audience was in and out of lockdowns, we were then adapting the partners that we were working with and adapting the rewards.

And we’ve come through that, then we’ve had the impacts on, you know, the cost of goods and now the cost of living crisis. So again, a pivot to value and actually really understanding constantly what people really need and then serving up. And I don’t think that’s the only program. I think every program has been on that same journey. So I think that audience impact has to be the biggest. 

However, it’s not the only impact that we’ve seen in those last five years, and it’s certainly not the only change. I think when you then sort of take a micro look at actually what that’s meant for programmes and actually what’s happening in the industry as a whole. I think we’ve seen a real change and an opening up of the acceptable loyalty mechanics. 

So five years ago, points really dominated, you know, whenever you were thinking about launching a new programme or you were looking at the biggest programmes, they were by and large points based programmes. And I think what we’ve seen happen in the last three to five years is that brands and programmes are taking a more strategic view of their business, their audience, their brand, and actually looking at what mechanics are actually right for them and for their means, and what’s gonna help them meet their objectives. 

And points is the answer for many. It’s still the most appealing mechanic out there. It does still dominate, but it’s not alone. And we’ve seen the rise of those other mechanics, milestone mechanics, where actually, you know, you’re completing a number of actions to engage.

We’ve seen the rise of Always On, so programmes that actually you just come in as a member and everything is available to you. We’ve got tiered programmes, subscription programmes and new kinds of benefits coming in. Like member pricing has been huge in the States for a long time and on the continent, but we’ve only just got that in Great Britain, that kind of that preferential pricing for members.

I think there’s been a lot of micro changes within the industry, a lot of that empowered by technological developments. I think we’re going to see a lot more in this space as well. And then I think lastly, a topic that I talk a lot about and I actually teach for the Loyalty Academy is about sustainability and actually the rise of the importance of the consideration of corporate social responsibility and loyalty programs. 

So again, five years ago, there were some programmes in this space, largely Donate Your Points to Charity was kind of the default model, but we’ve seen a huge amount of innovation in this space in the last sort of three to five years. So we looked at research in 2022 and we’ll be looking at it again to see actually what programmes can do, in this space to be genuinely more sustainable, have a better impact on society. 

And actually, top comes rewarding for sustainable behavior. Another area that coffee is really excelling in, Costa have really led the way here, buy 10 coffees, get one free, unless you use a reusable sustainable cup, in which case it’s twice as good, you only need to buy five. So a really interesting kind of development. So those are some of the big ones, but that’s not an exhaustive list. It’s been a very tumultuous, exciting and challenging few years.

Charlie Hawker

Yeah, and it’s interesting, like everything that you’ve mentioned around the changes have been positive changes. There’s not kind of no steps back in loyalty. It’s all positive innovation in the face of adversity stuff. So it’s really positive for not just the brands that are running the programs, but for the end customer and the user of those loyalty programs. So yeah, no, really, really interesting. 

And then I’m going to get you to get your crystal ball out now and think around. I’m going to push you for two trends that you think are coming down the track in the next 12 to 18 months. You may have hinted at a couple already.

Charlie Hills

Yeah, I mean, it’s a really tough question, isn’t it? You know, what’s going to predict? And I think if the last five years has taught us anything, it’s that actually you need to think about all possibilities. Again, you know, we never had a strategy in place for what happens if there’s a global pandemic and everybody gets locked in their houses. And yet that happened. 

So it’s not so much a trend as just a recognition that there are big changes all the time that nobody can predict. I think closely linked to that, I’d be remiss not to talk about the rise of artificial intelligence. I think we’ve been testing it, we’ve been developing it as an industry, we’ve been practicing with it significantly on lots of programs. I’ve seen some really advanced use in terms of personalization of rewards and benefits and communications. 

We’ve seen some really interesting things in customer service applications and actually direct kind of consumer engagement as a result of the loyalty program. But I really feel like we’re just scratching the surface of it. And I don’t know what’s coming. We know there’s a lot of legislation coming through the EU over the next 12 months. And I’m excited to see what that brings. 

As ever, as a strategist, I’m personally really interested in it. I’m dying to know what we can do with it. I’m playing with ChatGPT. You know, we’re writing stuff with Bard. We’re creating things. So I’m excited about it, but I’m also terrified, about what it might mean and the downsides that we haven’t yet thought of. So I think that will be a big trend for us all. I think it will go right up the agenda. 

And then the other big trend that I think coming through is almost the opposite of that, is the humanisation of programmes and thinking. And actually, rather than going, oh, I’ve got a points programme and I’ve got some technology that delivers it.

I genuinely believe brands and loyalty programs are shifting towards actually who are my audience, what do they need? What are my meaningful connection points with them? And how do I create a program or an engagement suite that actually means I’ve got a meaningful and genuine connection with my audience for the long term. 

And I think that genuinely is a very different way of thinking. And I think that’s going to get more, I think we’re going to get more human and more customer centric as this time comes on, what that will mean for programs, I don’t know, but those would be my top two.

Charlie Hawker

That’s very interesting. Kind of two ends of the spectrum there as well, isn’t it? Kind of the automation and kind of taking the human element out. And then how do you bring that back and push it back into the audience? Cause at the end of the day, at the end of every loyalty program is a person using it. So yeah, I think there’s very, very interesting trends. 

And as you say, like how they’ll evolve over the next few years will be very interesting because they’re kind of, they’re seeds of ideas at the moment, aren’t they? And how they’ll evolve. Yeah, it’d be very, very interesting. So when it comes to things around picking a tech vendor for loyalty programs, what are the main kind of features that you’re looking for, you’d like to see within the technology?

Charlie Hills

It’s a very interesting question because we’re very complementary to tech vendors. So we work with a lot of different tech vendors and we are rarely in a position where we’re selecting a tech vendor. So we’re normally alongside, we’re part of that collaboration in a kind of client led technical vendor selection process.

As to our agency requirements, we don’t really play in this space. So we sit alongside. However, as a strategist and somebody who works with lots of different tech vendors, we obviously have a point of view and we see some things that are really interesting coming through. 

I think one of the really key areas of focus, which again, feels very different sort of three, five years ago is about simplicity. And I think the platforms that are really excelling are the platforms that can be very complicated behind the scenes, but are very simple for the stakeholders that need to engage them. 

So they’re simple for the user, they address pain points, they create opportunities, you know, that seamless UX that we were talking about in the coffee sector, you know, still probably way ahead of other sectors in terms of how that actually delivers for the business. So I think that simplicity with the consumer, but also that simplicity for the teams who are using it and collaborating with it and adapting it and innovating it and making it work for their business. 

I think that’s almost as important and perhaps it hasn’t been before. I think perhaps the focus has been very much from the consumer interaction with the platform and not what goes on behind the scenes. But we talked about those big loyalty communities, there’s enormous number of stakeholders that work together to build every loyalty program. So I think that’s really important. However, I’m also a super nerd and an innovator. So I know that simplicity is the most important thing to get right. 

But what I’m really excited about is new formats, new mechanics, and fresh thinking, but always inspired by that customer insight. So I think it will be really cool to look at programs that can go, right, what does your brand need? What does your audience need? What does your business need? And then very quickly create something. 

And I think that’s inevitably where it has to go rather than here is a suite of generic options that you can sort of tick and play with. I think actually that core thought at the beginning needs to be designing with the consumer, the brand and the insight in mind and probably from a suite of pre-developed technologies but it’s got to have that audience first, brand first approach.

Charlie Hawker

Yeah, no, very interesting. Yeah, completely agree. I think the simplicity of if, if a loyalty team can’t use your technology and then implement it themselves, then you end up having to, from a tech vendor’s point of view, you end up having to over-service those clients and it’s not, it’s not right for everyone, right? And then suddenly it’s not used. 

So, and I think the best, the best technology is the one that’s used regularly and loved by, by the end users. Right? So that simplicity angle is I’m all for and all behind. So. Thank you very much. That’s a wrap to the questions actually. So thank you very much for being here. 

Charlie Hills

Great. Thank you for having me.

Charlie Hawker

I really enjoyed that. And that was fascinating bits of insight from yourself. I think the big bit for me was when you kind of reiterated around the people that you get to work with as being the proudest bit and just that community within the loyalty space is something that we need to protect as well as enjoy whilst we’re working in it. So yeah, thanks for bringing that up.

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Please visit antavo.com to discover your next loyalty software. Antavo is a next gen loyalty program technology vendor used by global companies like KFC, Benefit Cosmetics and other global brands.

Also, please check out Mando-Connect and Charlie, and thanks very much for listening, and we’ll catch you next time.