#LEAwards spills: NTUC Link wants to be even more customer-obsessed in 2021

NTUC Link is no stranger to digital transformation having honed its skills with enhancements to its customer engagement programme Plus! The programme currently reaches more than two million customers and this year, it gold for "Best CRM Strategy" at MARKETING-INTERACTIVE's Loyalty & Engagement Awards 2020.

The team also took home gold for Best Loyalty Programme – Retailer, and both gold and silver for Best Use of Consumer Insights/Data analytics. It also bagged the silver for Best Partnerships in a Loyalty Programme.

In a conversation with MARKETING-INTERACTIVE, Henry Christian, GM of NTUC Link says that this year the  team is busy working on some "big changes" to its Plus! rewards programme and hopes to make it accessible and convenient for its members. 

"Our vision is to become a customer-obsessed enough to understand our customers’ needs and behaviours and be there for them when, or even before, they need us; and to be able to curate personalised experiences to continuously engage our customers," he added.

This interview is done as part of MARKETING-INTERACTIVE’s winners and finalists’ interview series for Loyalty and Engagement Awards 2020. To find out more about the awards, click here. 

What are some of the expectations your consumers now have for your brand?

Christian: Building customer loyalty today means that establishing an emotional connection with customers is no longer a nice-to-have but a need-to-have. And nothing tugs at customers’ emotions more than responding to their individual needs and wants through personalisation.

Customers increasingly want to be recognised as individuals and not just a segment of our marketing approach. Customers, in exchange for giving up their data, increasingly demand personalisation.

Personalisation is more than just targeted email marketing or redirecting customers to pages they’ve once viewed. Rather, the success of personalisation is dependent on identifying the true drivers of loyalty. For example, product quality, value for money or superior customer service/experience are what inspires loyalty and keeps customers coming back. It is imperative to know the intrinsic motivation of customers and personalise our engagement with them in ways they want to be engaged.

Customers are no longer satisfied being engaged transactionally (monetary rewards). They want us retailers to appeal to their heart and mind via emotional and social engagements.

How has your marketing/your clients' marketing plans shifted this year?

Christian: We’re not a typical marketing agency per se; we’re a platform business connecting merchant partners (our clients) to members (our consumers) through our coalition loyalty programme and additional marketing services.

So the pandemic has brought about a diverse range of new priorities for our partners. Brick-and-mortar businesses looked to us to strengthen their online presence to stay relevant to consumers. The drastic fall in traffic to outlets caused by Circuit Breaker measures meant that one key priority for partners was to drive footfall back to their stores when Circuit Breaker measures were lifted.

Retention of core customers has also increased in importance for many partners. With cost leadership as a priority due to the pandemic, it has become more critical than ever for businesses to increase engagement with existing customers to maximise the use of every marketing dollar.

We also saw consumers (our Plus! members) shifting towards hyper-local consumption habits - they’re spending more in the heartlands. They are also becoming more interested in health & wellness and small luxuries, while spending less on other retail categories.

So we’ve been adjusting our consumer and merchant campaigns in response. The need to hyper-localise our messaging became more important. With customers limiting their time out of their home, we help customers to identify the locations of our partners that are near to where they live, according to the daily needs of our customers. This is the strength of our coalition loyalty network.

What are some of the trends you see carrying on post-pandemic, and how are you readying your workforce to be ready with these trends?

Christian: The accelerated shift towards e-commerce will remain even after the pandemic recedes. So we aim to continue growing our partner network in this area. One example is the recent launch of our Plus! Online Mall where members can earn LinkPoints as they shop for their beloved retail brands. Another is to enable digital LinkPoints earning across new channels for existing merchant partners, so that our loyalty offering remains relevant as customers migrate to online and self-service touchpoints.

The client prospecting, pitching and closing process has also shifted online. With shorter attention spans over video calls, the need for a succinct and effective consultative selling approach has become more important. We anticipate that at least 50% of our client meetings will continue to be conducted online in 2021, warranting the need to accelerate our digital sales conversion rates.

Our merchant partners are also becoming more sophisticated in their needs and expectations. We migrated to a new campaign management platform earlier this year, and we are still working hard to accelerate the enablement of new data-driven marketing and customer engagement capabilities to take advantage of the new opportunities that they open up. Because our merchant partners demand it, and their customers (who are also our programme members) expect it.

All of this means that in addition to functional competencies, what we really look for in our talents is the ability to think and work across different disciplines, and to be comfortable with ambiguity.

Because things are changing every day, and we want the team to be able to adapt quickly and collaborate effectively to meet these challenges.

What do you think makes for great marketing these days?

Christian: For all our strengths in data-driven marketing, I think that it isn’t complete without the two strongest drivers of customer loyalty – emotion and authenticity. Truly great marketing transcends customer value and data-driven personalisation. It is about establishing your brand as one that your customers can place their trust in, and you cannot achieve this without establishing an emotional appeal and authenticity in the eyes of your customers. Customers are discerning and busy these days, and brands must be able to prove that they can appeal to their customers’ aspirational drivers and especially share common values (e.g. sustainability, innovation) with customers, to be able to deserve their customers’ attention and time, and ultimately win their trust.

How are you planning for 2021?

Christian: On the consumer front, we are working on some big changes to our Plus! rewards programme, and we are eager to roll them out next year. We want to make the programme more accessible and convenient for our members. It is the start of the next lap for our transformation journey. Our vision is to become a customer-obsessed enough to understand our customers’ needs and behaviours and be there for them when, or even before, they need us; and to be able to curate personalised experiences to continuously engage our customers.

On the merchant partners (clients) front, we expect a gradual recovery from the pandemic, which will require us to continue to adapt our partnership strategy. We expect groceries to continue being a strong performer. We want to engage more multi-brand F&B merchant partners despite their uneven recovery, as we believe in their strategic importance to our ambition of becoming the daily essentials rewards programme.

For lifestyle, we expect higher demand for local tourism and online streaming and subscription-based services. For retail, we expect e-commerce to continue dominating, and we should continue to see more traditional brick-and-mortar big-box retailers moving online to diversify their portfolios. So we will also work hard to adjust our partnerships in these two verticals to maintain our top-of-mind awareness among our programme members.

The writer is Henry Christian, general manager of NTUC Link