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The concept of trophy value is a main tenet of incentive industry practice.


Tangible rewards, travel and experiences have it. Cash rewards don’t. Understanding what it is and how it works is key to leveraging the psychological power of rewards.

What is trophy value?

Well, what is a trophy? A public symbol of achievement, a personal memento of effort, an emotional trigger for reliving highs and lows of the work and the satisfaction of intrinsic and extrinsic reward. Rewards with trophy value carry public and private power, making them superbly effective tools for shaping behaviour and driving performance.

It’s a personal thing

Rewards don’t have to be over-the-top extravagant to carry trophy value. A Nespresso coffee machine and a group trip to Mauritius each have their own special kind of trophy value. And according to Rodger Stotz, Chief Research Officer at the Incentive Research Foundation, merchandise and travel have similar trophy value. The real trophy, according to Stotz, is in the experience. Speaking on the subject in Incentive Motivate, he says, “People are motivated by experiences. When you talk to recipients, they talk about the merchandise, but also the experience of using it – wearing the necklace, watching the TV. And travel is, primarily, an experience.”

From an academic research perspective, Dr Scott Jeffrey cites salience as the common factor in effective rewards. His findings suggest incentive program participants retain a strong memory image of the reward they’re working towards both throughout the program and long after. He goes so far as to conclude that the more people think about the reward they’re working for, the harder they work to achieve it. Call it what you will; focus, determination, visualisation, obsession. But if you hold keen childhood memories of ‘earning’ your first skateboard by doubling up on household chores, you understand the power of salience.

Perception is powerful

Perhaps the starting point for leveraging the trophy value of tangible rewards is understanding the power of perception. In his IRF research paper, The benefits of tangible, non-monetary incentives, Dr Jeffrey’s discusses the four psychological processes underpinning the human tendency to ascribe greater value to tangible rewards than the cash equivalent.

Evaluability. It’s difficult to attach a precise monetary value to tangible rewards. The mental image of +/- R 2000 just doesn’t have the same motivational staying power as the image of a new Weber for the next pool party.

Separability. Cash rewards tend to get lumped in with salary and spent on mundane, but necessary expenses like electricity, rent and school fees. Tangible rewards are clear and separate symbols of achievement.

Justifiability. When a tangible reward is something (big or small) that a person just wouldn’t buy with their own cash, it’s psychologically acceptable to feel emotionally satisfied and truly rewarded. Cash can create a conflict between ‘want’ and ‘should’, which defeats the positive personal and performance benefits of effective rewards.

Social reinforcement. Here’s where trophy value comes into play. Tangible rewards are talked about with colleagues over coffee, with family at Sunday lunch and with friends and strangers alike on social media. Sharing the details of your latest cash bonus is generally frowned upon in polite society. But a group WhatsApp to say ‘Hey, I’m top sales guy this month and won this Apple notebook (photo included) is an acceptable brag. Positive social reinforcement increases the perceived value of the reward.

Every trophy tells a story

Humans are, by nature, collectors of things. And material things matter to us. Not so much the things in and of themselves, but the way we relate to them and use them. Our possessions tell the story of us. We talk about it in our blog, Why we love merchandise rewards.

We invest memories and emotions in tangible rewards, giving them profound meaning and purpose


Emotional connection rules

Social science and behavioural economics research is replete with evidence that emotion overrules cool logic more often than we’d like to admit. Poets and philosophers throughout history have made the same observations, but without the science to back it up.

So, yes, trophy value matters a lot to the way the rewards are perceived, valued and importantly, remembered. The half-life memory of a cash bonus is about 2 months. There you have it.



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