Sunday 28 March 2010

Is the going good for Barclaycard Freedom?


The TV advertising has launched. The programme collateral has been dispatched. The biggest new loyalty programme launch in the UK for the last few years is out of the gates.

However, what are the chances of it making it over the first few hurdles and more importantly actually crossing the finishing line. This is most definitely not a one horse race and the verdict is still out on whether Freedom may be a good bet - and that's with the punters - the card holders.

Hurdle 1 - Earning Options

Within a loyalty scheme, the ability for engaging customers in the programme is a balance between the perceived value of the reward and the effort required to achieve this.

For Freedom it ticks one of these boxes well - it gives 1% back to card holders, positioning it at the high-end of standard card loyalty programmes (with most giving more like 0.5% back). However in order to get that 1%, you have to spend at Freedom merchants, and this can be hard given the current selection of partners.

For me personally, the majority of my high, regular spend is business expenses. This means I need hotel companies, train companies and airlines signed up to Freedom to make it worthwhile. Until then my current reward credit card gets the spend - and that all important front slot in the wallet.

Hurdle 2 - Coalition vs Card Loyalty

Freedom is a little schizophrenic. It's not quite a traditional card loyalty scheme - offering rewards on all spend on the card, regardless of merchant - and not quite a coalition scheme - offering rewards on all spend with the merchant, regardless of payment card.

In reality Freedom is trying to be both a coalition and card loyalty programme - building loyalty to the retailer as a coalition scheme would and loyalty to the card at the same time.

This is a tough call for consumers as it means not only do I have to think about retailer choice, but also payment choice. Most loyalty junkies have a favourite payment card (for me it's my Tesco Clubcard Credit Card) which they use everywhere to maximise points earning, and will then have other, secondary loyalty cards such as Nectar or Boots Advantage to collect points across retailers where applicable.

By limiting earning to only Barclays merchants who have signed up, they are limiting potential ongoing usage of the card across all merchants - this may naturally make it a secondary card for many people - a position Barclaycard can't afford it to take.

Hurdle 3 - Programme Sign-posting

With Freedom being basically a coalition programme, it requires the consumer to make a choice - ideally changing their regular merchant to one who takes part in Freedom.

Getting the consumer to change retailer is all well and good if you're the Freedom merchant - but how does the customer know about you?

The issue here is that on a programme like Nectar, it's easy to remember the relatively small number of big brands taking part. Sainsburys, BP, Homebase - these are all big brands who are nationwide. Freedom on the other hand has some big brands - but none who really fit into those habit forming categories. Also, whilst it's both ingenious and laudable to provide a loyalty scheme that works across smaller, grassroots merchants, this makes it harder to get cut through to the consumer.

For Freedom to work, small merchants are going to have to shout about it from the roof-tops - almost literally.

As an example, look at how PayPoint - a provider which enables bill payment at merchants - publicise themselves. They have signs physically displayed on the outside of the merchant and clearly displayed window decals.


This may be overkill for Barclaycard Freedom, but with 30,000 merchants invited to take part, the card holder is going to need some form of sign-posting to be able to identify them on the high-street. It's too late if I have to wait until I get to the payment terminal to see the Barclaycard logo.

This I think is the crux of the problem though - and possibly the genius - the removal of reliance on big brands.

For decades now we've been sold on brands - from branded retailers to branded goods, we use easily recognisable logos to help simplify an increasingly competitive and complex commercial environment.

The Freedom programme though would seem to be trying to get us to think differently - to ignore the brands and instead focus on the service.

For example, whilst they may not have a large supermarket brand in the programme - looking at "Grocery and General Goods" retailers in the programme local to me brings up a number of small, privately owned grocery retailers such as "Meadow Farm Shop & Tea Room" in the village of Flore - not Tesco I grant you, but then they aren't trying to be, they offer something completely different.

For me this is the point - Freedom itself is actually offering something completely different.

It's not trying to be Nectar - it actually turns the traditional coalition programme on its head with no category exclusivity.

It's not trying to be Tesco Clubcard - with one retailer trying to take an ever larger share of our purchases in ever larger stores.

Instead, it is offering choice - freedom you might say - as long as that choice is paid for on a Barclaycard.