Game on: How restaurants can power up loyalty strategy

June 27, 2013
Game on: How restaurants can power up loyalty strategy

By Marc Glazer, Kobie

With so many game tactics suddenly taking the spotlight, it's easy to think every strategy is something new and gamified. But actually, when you think about it, "Loyalty" is the original example of how brands started to use games to motivate their consumer sets.

Take for example, sites like Trip Advisor that have turned destination reviewers into "gamers." On the site, the more reviews written equals new and higher status, complete with cool titles like "Senior Reviewer." The food review website Yelp boasts 36 million local reviewers whose status partially depends on the number of reviews they write. Increasing and rewarding status has been a part of loyalty since American Airlines created AAdvantage in 1981. In each case above, the charge of gaming's competitive nature drives users to post as many reviews as possible.

As gamification strategies become the engagement tool of choice for many brands (and loyalty marketers alike), technology has caught up and is doing wonders to help restaurants incorporate game play into their marketing efforts, bolstering their loyalty programs. According to a recent study by software company Gigya, gamifying a website can increase engagement by as much as 34 percent.

Smartphone mobile apps have really changed the paradigm and have proven to be a major gaming boost, bringing game play to the every day masses – gaming apps are among the most popular ever published. Just in the Apple store three of the top five apps in March 2013 (of more than 800,000 apps) were games. And not only were they downloaded in record numbers, they were used often. Of the two-plus hours the average American spends on his or her smartphone every day, 50 minutes is spent playing games. That's right, 50 minutes spent playing games every single day!

But beyond standard loyalty tactics like the restaurant review sites, how can restaurateurs better "gamify" their loyalty programs?

For starters, the basics need to be in place. That includes recognizing that loyalty gaming must be fun and simple, with rewards that link back to genuine in-restaurant experiences – say, special sneak-previews of new menu items, discounted drinks and meals, merchandise and even off-site trips to concerts or sporting events. It should also be social, with members sharing experiences or forming teams, a type of camaraderie that can influence others.

The easiest way to adapt gaming to restaurants is by incorporating game theory into tactics rather than delivering the full-fledged game. Almost any type of product offering or promotion can be gamified.

Restaurants Scoring Big Gaming Wins

BJ's Restaurant and Brewhouse is a good example of a restaurant achieving that aim. The franchise's Premier Rewards Get Social campaign encourages diners to post their real-time restaurant visits on sites like Facebook, Foursquare and Twitter. Alerting friends and family to their BJ's outing earns them three points per visit and also inspires those people to check BJ's out for themselves.

Another example is Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar. The franchise recently launched a new mobile gaming app timed to coincide with this year's NCAA March Madness Final Four championship. Partnering with the NCAA, the app's pop-a-shot virtual basketball game featured augmented reality and allowed restaurant patrons to earn points based on their shooting record while sharing those results in real time with other players. Fans with the top 50 weekly scores earn a $25 Buffalo Wild Wings gift card each.

Unmatched Potential to Dream Big and Play Hard

These examples are just the beginning. Imagine if restaurants created "loyalty leaderboards" linked to mobile apps. Customer metrics could be tracked and showcased in a playful, competitive way. Loyalty leaderboards could indicate the top 10 frequent patrons, variety of purchases or most new patrons brought in. Gamified loyalty could also be tailored to drive specific outcomes, like the purchase of new menu items, increased traffic for different times of day or attracting specific demographics. And these programs exist in different verticals: check out Vail Epic Mix (, but think restaurant.

Restaurant staff, too, can benefit from these types of gaming/loyalty approaches. Think about it. Opening up similar leaderboard games for servers, hosts and hostesses and bartenders and then incentivizing them can be a great way to drive operational excellence. Customers could also vote for their favorite servers, with the winners of such competitions earning additional perks.

Final Score: Loyalty in Perspective

Today's games and loyalty gaming apps have come a long way from their earlier arcade and console game roots.

Highly social and inclusive, gamification is reinventing restaurant patronage and, by incorporating gaming elements, restaurateurs can influence frequency of patron visits, as well as average spend.

Encouragingly, more than half of casual dining restaurants, 57 percent, already feature a loyalty program and 80 percent of diners claim they would join a loyalty program if their favorite restaurant offered it. Think about the prospects of a truly gamified, fun, social, engagement-filled and highly rewarding loyalty program that was dedicated to driving RFM and creating true Brand Loyalists.

For restaurants the name of the game has always been the engagement and retention of fans. In the loyalty gaming era, the likelihood of achieving those goals is higher than ever. I think it's time the fast casual and quick service restaurant industries power up and declare "game on" for gaming.

Marc Glazer spearheads the Brand Experience practice at Kobie, a confluence of communications and marketing strategy experts and seasoned creative professionals.

Read more about technology.

Topics: Loyalty Programs, Marketing / Branding / Promotion, Online / Mobile / Social

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