M&S: the Sparks scheme is off to a successful start, but its purpose isn't clear
M&S: the Sparks scheme is off to a successful start, but its purpose isn't clear
A view from Will Collin

M&S' next loyalty chief will have one priority: fix Sparks

M&S' loyalty chief, Suzanna Broer, was dismissed earlier this month, and her successor will have their work cut out trying to make the new Sparks membership scheme stand out, writes Will Collin, founding partner at Naked Communications.

Since its launch last October, Sparks has signed up an impressive 3.3m cardholders. 

In other words, in just 11 weeks, 3.3m people willingly opted in to receive frequent marketing communication and share their data in return for, well, the promise of unspecified discounts. And the possibility of other, non-monetary benefits like sale previews and yet-to-be-announced special events.

That scale of uptake is some testament to the power of M&S’s in-store and direct mail push, and to the trust people place in its brand.

(Let me declare an interest: I am one of those 3.3m, so my observations here are inevitably skewed by personal experience.)

Keeping members loyal

Sparks ticks the box for a solid launch and a significant rate of adoption.  So the question then becomes: what now?  How can this new scheme earn its keep and deliver real business results?

The biggest challenge facing Sparks is how to keep those 3.3m cardholders interested in the scheme.

The three-month honeymoon is now over.  After the initial flurry of excitement, what will keep people scanning their cards at the till, checking their points totals and picking their rewards?

If Sparks members don’t feel they’re getting value from the scheme, it won’t be long before they lapse into dormancy. This needs to be at the forefront of Broer’s successor’s mind.

Offer meaningful benefits

Here are some answers to that challenge.  Firstly, ensure the scheme offers meaningful benefits that can be unlocked at accessible points levels. 

It has been claimed that Sparks was built upon gamification principles that encourage users to ‘level up’ to access better rewards (and status) by collecting more points. 

That’s all well and good, but it will only work if what you get by reaching the next level feels worth having. 

In a promotionally saturated world where voucher codes and cashback sites abound, a 10% discount off skincare (one of my current ‘Sparks benefits’) doesn’t feel like a reward worth making an effort for.

Give members value

Sparks has been pitched as a membership club, not a loyalty programme.  But so far, it’s been very transactional.  The onus is on us, the shoppers, to transact in order to get any kind of value from our ‘membership’.  That feels pretty much like a loyalty scheme to me, albeit one without the lure of true monetary rewards.

What about offering me something without first requiring me to jump through a hoop?  That ‘something’ need not necessarily be a freebie: it could be interesting content, say, or a lower minimum basket size for free online delivery.  A club gives its members value; a loyalty scheme waits for the transaction first.

In fairness, M&S has already begun creating content for Sparks cardholders: a newsletter about Olympic rower Alex Gregory’s new year fitness tips, and how-to videos on Christmas wrapping and flower arranging. 

But since these are distributed via email links there’s a risk they get overlooked. The mailing frequency is so high (I received 10 in a month) that people may resort to scanning the headlines for offers while ignoring everything else.  It may be time to consider using good old direct mail once in a while in order to sidestep the email overload.

Clarify what Sparks is

Perhaps the biggest challenge for the new Sparks chief is to be clear about the role the scheme is intended to play. 

M&S already has an established loyalty scheme in the form of M&S Bank credit and debit cards, which send out M&S vouchers every quarter based on people’s total card spend. 

With more than 2m cardholders on board – myself included - there’s surely significant overlap with the Sparks base. 

While actually operated by HSBC under license, M&S Bank is arguably the ‘real’ loyalty programme since it delivers real monetary rewards.  (Indeed, the M&S Bank website describes it as "the M&S Loyalty Scheme".)

Following the cap on interchange fees for payment card transactions imposed by the EU in December, it’s possible that M&S Bank’s rewards may have to become less generous.  In which case Sparks could emerge as the definitive loyalty platform.

For now, the main focus for the new Sparks boss is to make sure those 3.3m members see some meaningful benefit from the new plastic rectangle in their wallet - otherwise Sparks won’t fly.