Three lessons in loyalty for a post-pandemic world

May 19, 2021 | By Francis Hondal

If there’s anything this past year taught us, it’s that our needs and wants are not as static as we may have thought.

Our lives are more digital than ever before, from how we shop to how we work and connect. Our needs are nuanced and individual, demanding personalization. Our willingness to try new things is opening doors, from technologies to new experiences. And our desire for security and trust, especially around our personal information, is growing.

These dynamics hold long-term implications for consumer brands. Circumstances change, and the way we react to them change. Despite this, the fundamentals of loyalty programs have remained constant: Brands need to create relevant, rewarding, easy-to-use programs that draw in new customers and keep their existing ones coming back.

We know points, discounts and cash back have been the bread and butter of loyalty programs traditionally, but we also saw those same travel points pile up unused this past year. Generic, one-size-fits-all rewards and benefits are a thing of the past.

Over the past year, we’ve seen the emergence of three primary consumer needs: well-being, choice and experience. Our belief is that loyalty programs today and well into the future should focus on these three needs, with the understanding that only programs that offer exceptional digital experiences, deliver personalization and protect consumer’s personal data will succeed.


The state of being comfortable, healthy and happy. Isn’t this exactly what we’ve all sought this past year? The pandemic hasn’t just threatened our physical health – it’s taken a toll on our whole selves. An ongoing study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that about 4 in 10 adults in the U.S. have reported symptoms of anxiety or depression during COVID-19, up from one in ten in 2019. The pandemic only underscored the importance of both our physical and mental health. 

That’s why we’re forging entirely new territory with our loyalty programs: entering the physical wellness space. In Latin America and the Caribbean, we launched a telemedicine benefit where cardholders can access a digital health service with on-demand live medical help and teleconsultations. We plan to bring telemedicine benefits to other markets around the world. Our new Walgreens co-branded credit card in North America offers accelerated rewards for health and wellness purchases regardless of where cardholders are shopping.

Additionally, while travel has long been a cornerstone of loyalty programs, we’re looking at travel in a new light following the pandemic. It’s not just about getting out, it’s about the benefits travel brings to your mental health and well-being. Making every trip as stress-free and enjoyable as possible — from easy booking online to worry-free check-in to special experiences with family and friends — all part of this equation. We've made several enhancements to our own Travel & Lifestyle Service, such as implementing a hotel stay guarantee to provide peace of mind that you get what you paid for. 


Consumers want choice in earning their rewards and benefits, and they want the flexibility to use the points when and how they like. One way we’re bringing consumers flexibility is through our Pay with Rewards app that gives cardholders the freedom to spend points like cash before, at or after the purchase. Over the past year, we saw noticeable increases in Pay with Rewards redemptions at grocery stories, drug stores and other everyday spending categories. We envision this will change as travel options open back up — demonstrating the importance of programs that are as flexible as people’s priorities. In fact, several airline partners have expressed interest in enabling Pay with Rewards in their programs.

We’re also expanding our loyalty programs to embrace next-generation preferences. This includes our recent announcement with Gemini, launching the first credit card to provide real-time crypto rewards, or our program that allows people to redeem their rewards to plant trees through the Priceless Planet Coalition.


We work closely with banks and card issuers to provide services that speak to cardholders’ passions and needs.

For example, as COVID-19 grounded travel to a halt last year and all our horizons suddenly narrowed, the prospect of salting away loyalty points for a dream vacation became irrelevant. Yet our infrastructure still held tremendous value. So, we pivoted our global travel and concierge service to focus on the immediate needs of cardholders — home deliveries of everyday essentials, securing medical appointments and providing digital content to keep families entertained. We've deployed this same service in India and, more recently, made it available to all Mastercard employees there to provide immediate support as they navigate the local COVID crisis. 

We also work closely with our bank and merchant partners to ensure they’re offering real-time offers and deals that are most compelling. For instance, as consumers increasingly turn to online channels for everyday shopping, we announced new and expanded partnerships with online merchants to ensure World and World Elite consumer credit cardholders get the highest value where they’re spending most frequently.

Also, last summer our Mastercard Travel Rewards program, which provides offers to international travelers, was expanded to include thousands of online offers, bringing people their favorite international brands from the comfort of their couches. The uptake was gratifying. We also help our partners to test the effectiveness of their programs — ensuring we’re relying on data-driven insights, not on gut instinct that might reflect outdated perspectives.

Finally, when experience is everything, insights are essential. Because in a world where consumers have more choices than ever before, it’s important that every experience be personal. But  rich insights and deep engagement are only possible if consumers are willing to “opt-in” and share their information. At Mastercard, we ensure privacy and data responsibility practices that meet consumers' demand to keep their data protected while delivering maximum value and convenience to them. 

As vaccinations continue to accelerate and we return to a semblance of our old lives, many of the behaviors of the last year will stick while others fade. By prioritizing well-being, choice and experience, we can build meaningful brand loyalty — no matter what tomorrow brings. 

Photo of Francis Hondal
Francis Hondal, President, Loyalty and Engagement Services