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Rewards and pleasure. They go together, like hot summer days and ice cream.


But unpacking the pleasure we associate with rewards requires a deeper understanding of behavioural science. Also, a more critical look at the way we evaluate reward effectiveness. Because ‘no-fun’ rewards amount to poor results, and lower ROI.

Wired for pleasure: The latest neuroscience

The human brain. Its many secrets drive an entire sub-section of scientific study – behavioural science – in a quest for answers. As business moves towards more human-centred product, service and solution design, marketers are among the first to seek out and apply the findings from human behavioural scientists. For loyalty and reward marketers, especially, this knowledge can prove invaluable.

So, what are the current behavioural findings shaping the world of rewards? We’ve summarised them into three points:

1. Do this. Get that. Repeat.

The most important reward pathway in the brain is called the mesolimbic dopamine system. Yes, the one that lights up like a Christmas tree when the brain registers a reward.

But what’s really interesting about this ancient pathway of pleasure-seeking neurons is that, on activation, it sends signals to repeat whatever the individual did to get the reward.

We can all relate to the habit-forming cycle of repeat behaviour. From the gymaholic who plummets into depression at the thought of missing a day of endorphin-inducing fitness, to the hardworking business executive who can’t start her day without a double shot latte from the coffee shop on the corner.

Take out: We repeat actions and behaviours that we think will end in a reward.

2. The build-up matters

Next, is the finding that our brain’s pleasure reward circuit activates, not once we receive a reward, but beforehand, in anticipation of a reward. So, what actually creates our reward and pleasure-seeking behaviour is, in fact, a desire to satisfy our craving for that reward.

Take out: Our brains activate in anticipation of a reward and our reward-seeking behaviour stems from a desire to alleviate the longing for that reward.

3. We notice what’s different

There’s a small, seahorse-shaped section of the brain called the hippocampus. This area is involved in the composition of memories. In studying the hippocampus, we’ve learned that the brain is hardwired to notice what’s new or different. And it loves novelty!

An early behavioural scientist, B. F. Skinner, linked this finding to motivation. He saw that the brain responds especially well to what he termed, “intermittent reinforcement” – essentially, the random experience of rewards that induce a thrill of expectation and anticipatory delight.

Take out: Our brains repeat certain behaviours because they remember that they result in rewards. And, our brains respond more powerfully to rewards that arrive randomly and spontaneously.

What these findings point to is the importance of considering the behaviours in your reward approach that will result in memorable, meaningful and pleasurable experiences for your brand users.

The bottom line, for loyalty and reward marketers particularly, is that we need to take fun more seriously.

Here’s a great example of experiential marketing to illustrate the point:

Taking full advantage of Daniel Craig’s global appeal as 007 Agent, James Bond, and to promote the release of Skyfall, the new Bond movie at the time, Coke Zero put customers through a thrilling series of stunts at Belgium’s Central Station in Antwerp.

Titled, ‘Unlock the 007 in You’, the campaign offered customers the chance to win exclusive tickets to the world premiere of the film, when buying a Coke Zero from a vending machine. On purchase, customers were given instructions to get to a platform within the train station – in just 70 seconds.

Clutching their Cokes, customers were seen speeding through the station as a series of obstacles got in their way; an escalator blocked by a group of runners, a fruit stall toppling over, a woman walking miniature dogs, and workmen carrying a huge pane of glass. Along the route, musicians played the Bond theme, heightening the drama. And the fun.

The results of the Coke Zero campaign? It broke the company’s records for online views, enjoyment and engagement. In actual terms:

  • Reach: 7.1 million views on YouTube
  • Enjoyment: 98% likes on YouTube
  • Engagement: 832.3k shares (801.9k via Facebook, 29.8k tweets and 500 via blog posts)

So, we can see that fun – when packaged creatively and with originality – is a massively underutilised success factor in reward strategy.

We have a possible explanation as to why loyalty marketers and brand managers alike are failing to leverage the fun factor in their promotions and programs:

How do you measure fun?

In a world saturated with data and data analytics, reward effectiveness is evaluated through a series of measures. You know these metrics. They’re the tried-and-tested, stock-standard reward performance measures we’re all familiar with…

Things like number of users; number of active users; new members; channels of registration and acquisition; average transaction value; purchase frequency; churn rate; and cost per member.

We’re not saying these KPIs don’t have a place – they do. But what we’re suggesting is that it’s time to introduce measures that are more behaviourally-orientated.

With access to a plethora of tools that can source, sort and structure data, there’s no reason why loyalty and reward marketers can’t find out what their customers, channel partners and employees actually think and feel about their loyalty programs, and their rewards, in particular.

Pleasure metrics that include aspects, such as fun, likeability, enjoyment and spontaneity can easily be incorporated into reward surveys, polls, votes and interactive Q&As.

What’s more, these data gathering mechanisms can be designed to include a spectrum of emotions. It makes perfect sense. We experience rewards emotionally, after all. Just think of the many words we associate with the experience of receiving rewards:

Excitement; energy; surprise; delight; thoughtfulness; thankfulness; cheer; happiness; hope; pride; respect; importance; confidence; appreciation; love; success; wonder; worth; satisfaction; contentedness; trust.

Next time you review your reward strategy, think carefully about your approach to reward design. Design for fun. Also, build emotive, feedback-based metrics into your evaluation of rewards. Because the way to outwit, outsmart and outwin your competition may have arrived in an unexpected new form: Fun (with a capital ‘F’).


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