After weeks of tolerating life with a broken wallet (which would spontaneously burst open, flinging its contents all around the room), I decided it was finally time to purchase a new one. This brought about the tedious task of transferring an abundance of cards from one wallet to another. It was only then, that I realised quite how much of my wallet was packed with the marketing attempts of a variety of different companies. To my frustration, I also realised how well these companies’ marketing attempts were working… because I simply couldn’t bring myself to dispose of any of these loyalty or rewards cards that were stealing space in my wallet!
Each loyalty cards entitles me to receive a free item after purchasing the same item a specified number of times prior. For example, my Boost Vibe Member card allows me to get a free Boost juice on every 10th purchase at Boost. My Rush Coffee card enables me to receive a free coffee every 9th purchase, and my Panizzi card offers me a free toastie on every 8th purchase.
These loyalty cards are a perfect example of behavioural learning theories being applied to marketing strategy. In particular, they demonstrate the use of instrumental (operant) conditioning. Instrumental conditioning is based on the idea that “learning occurs through a trial-and-error process, with habits formed as a result of rewards received for certain responses or behaviours” (Schiffman et al. 2014, p. 208). It involves the use of positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement and punishment to shape the behaviour as desired. B. F. Skinner first documented the concept of instrumental conditioning and demonstrated its power by training animals to perform extraordinary actions (Weiten 2014, p. 9). For example, he managed to train pigeons to play an adapted game of table tennis – as shown in the clip below.
Relating this back to the loyalty cards, we can see that instrumental conditioning plays a major role in their effectiveness. Every time your card is stamped, ticked or swiped, you are receiving a form of positive reinforcement. This creates a positive association with the behaviour demonstrated (that is, your purchase of a product/service from a particular place) and makes you more likely to repeat this behaviour in the future.
This concept is simple, yet incredibly effective. It is not until now, that I realise how influenced I am by these small pieces of plastic/cardboard in my wallet that promise a reward. Subconsciously, it does not matter to me that I will spend $45 before obtaining the final $5 reward… It is enough to convince me to pick one coffee shop over another – which is exactly what our marketers aim for.
BFSkinnerFoundation, 1950, BF skinner foundation – Pigeon ping pong clip, online video, 1 April, BF Skinner Foundation, viewed 1 May 2014, <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vGazyH6fQQ4>.
McDonnel, 1998, George’s exploding wallet, online video, 8 August, Seinfeld, viewed 1 May 2014, <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gwEmQNd6wMA>.
Schiffman, L, O’Cass, A, Paladino, A & Carlson, J 2014, Consumer Behaviour, 6th edn, Pearson Australia, Frenchs Forest, NSW.
Weiten, W 2014, Psychology Themes and Variations, 9th edn, Wadsworth, Belmont, California.