CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/NECTAR - Will WCRS's ads for Nectar launch a distinguishable brand? Glen Mutel reports

With its launch advertising campaign bursting on to our screens, pages and toilet walls, now is the time for the Nectar loyalty programme to live up to its billing.

Expectations are high. Loyalty Management UK, the company behind the scheme, is aiming to have half the UK population signed up to Nectar within the first few months of its launch. An ambitious target this may be, but it's no more than you would expect from a scheme backed by the likes of Sainsbury's, BP, Debenhams and Barclaycard.

A lot will depend on Nectar's advertising strategy, and the success of the WCRS-produced campaign that launches this month. The promotion of loyalty cards has traditionally been the forte of database marketers, but the size of Nectar's ambitions means that the above-the-line advertising has a crucial part to play.

WCRS's group account director, Emma Lawson, says: "We needed to make something that was incredibly populist and easy to understand. Although Nectar isn't a complicated scheme, it's essential that its basics are communicated clearly because it's a new concept for people to get their head around. Also, we had to bear in mind that we were talking to almost the entire UK population."

Loyalty Management UK is chaired by Keith Mills, who, rather neatly, is the co-founder of Air Miles. A lot of comparisons have been made between Nectar and Air Miles, although the extent to which the two loyalty schemes are direct rivals is a matter for debate.

Air Miles courts the aspirational traveller, rewarding its members lavishly but infrequently, whereas Nectar has chosen to focus on regularly consumed rewards such as McDonald's meals, Odeon cinema tickets and Blockbuster videos.

Distinctly positioned the two schemes may be, but that hasn't stopped Air Miles from unveiling one of the biggest flight promotions in recent memory in preparation for Nectar's launch.

Matt Shepherd-Smith is the managing partner at TBWA/London, the agency responsible for the "great Air Miles giveaway" campaign. He says: "The ads are basically talking to people who are interested in travelling so it's a pretty wide-ranging target audience. And, obviously, they were designed to counter the launch of Nectar. They've pre-empted Nectar going live, which was intended."

Nectar may well have lofty ambitions and an impressive roster of backers and partners, but it does not have a recognisable brand. By contrast, the Air Miles name is almost part of the national lexicon.

For Nectar's launch campaign to address this issue, it had to tackle the task of pushing the credentials of the four founding sponsors, while establishing a distinct brand identity for Nectar in its own right.

It was also important that the campaign didn't undermine the brand values of Sainsbury's, Debenhams, BP and Barclaycard. Lawson admits that anything too edgy, irreverent and in your face might have done more harm than good for all involved.

The Nectar campaign will be accompanied by individual activity from the scheme's sponsors. This will take the total combined marketing support for Nectar to more than £50 million, making it one of the most expensive UK product launches ever.

Yes, it's a huge gamble. But if Nectar is even fractionally as successful as the Canadian scheme on which it is based, it will be one that pays off handsomely.

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