Six Lessons from the “Inspire Program” by SAQ in Canada.


Jakub Minks - Guest Contributor

June 1, 2023

Last week, we had an opportunity to listen to Nevine Baracat, the leader of “Inspire” a truly outstanding customer relationship program at SAQ, the Government-owned alcohol retailer in Quebec, Canada.

 Episode #342 of Let’s Talk Loyalty walks us through the story behind an exceptionally well-executed program which is designed to help its customers “choose better”.

I believe there are some universal learnings from this thoughtful CRM strategy for everyone in the loyalty community, whether you are running a program for your best coffee shop patrons, or several million members.

Let’s Get Some Facts on the Table First. Ready?

SAQ has almost $4B in revenue, and a healthy 30% profit margin from selling more than fifteen thousand SKUs across 800 retail locations and online.

Impressive… right?

This kind of scale and performance is liberating, as you can really afford to do anything, even the most sophisticated customer scenarios.

And it is also binding, as having the trust of 1.9 million people requires steady hands and measured steps.

Moreover, SAQ needs to strike the right balance between growth and responsible consumption.

Due to its mandate, SAQ is not in the business of selling more alcohol to people, rather, its mission is to “provide superior service to the Quebec public by offering a broad range of quality products”.

The program is live for over 7 years and it started from scratch. It now has 1.9 million members.

Impressively, half of those members were acquired within the first 3 months.

One in every three adult Quebecois is part of Inspire and the program is so popular, that two in every three purchases has a Inspire membership number attached.

So, what can we all learn from Nevine and the SAQ Inspire program?

Here are my top 6 learnings:

Story First

Operationally, we may focus on cross, fill empty seats, and give back to the community.

But at the end of the day, customer programs like Inspire are here to create a sustainable, more profitable business that are aligned with its values and mission.

Thus the guiding principle of the aptly-named “Inspire” is to guide consumers through the rich world of wines and spirit, help them remember what they liked and open new horizons.

I have seen this over and over. When you have a strong story, a strong mission, you can create a coherent customer program that advances your brand. Just look at Club Rip Curl.

When you are chasing technology fads (hello NFTs and crypto) and burning advertising dollars, without taking time to really distill the vibes that your brand shares with your beloved customers, you are bound to fail.

So take time to think it through before you start drawing the project launch Powerpoint slides.

Have a story to tell, story that everyone from the front-desk to the board room will love, and then, and only then, move!

Mechanics – Personal with Purpose

SAQ Inspire is one of the modern breeds of programs.

Not direct discount or Earn&Burn, but surprise and delight with targeted offers (you can always create better value deals with less margin hit with segmentation).

With enough members, a sizable SKU catalog, and medium-frequency retail, a mobile app is the best choice as a high-engagement consumer-facing channel and personalization is a clear step. Purchase history and customer purchase profiles are a nice addition.

But the Inspire program does not stop at personalised newsletter or app offers. It has elements of clienteling, tuning sales persons into superheroes, able to suggest best-fitting products. Store kiosks present relevant offers both to store clerks and customers.

Given that the program focuses on guiding customers through the selection, sharing the customer profile is a desirable part of the experience.

The Sunset of Flyers (And How This Customer Program Saved the Day)

We are living through the end of the printed flyer extinction – thank goodness.

There are three reasons: environment, cost and offer relevance.

In particular, eliminating the costs of paper, printing and distribution generates substantial environmental and financial savings.

We saw this item alone to easily propel the business case into a “GO” decision.

There is a clear pre-requisite to going full-digital without risking a revenue gap due to disruption. To maintain business continuity while switching to fully digital flyers, you want to have most of your customers already receptive to digital communication – and a healthy, app-based loyalty program is the best way to do this sustainably.

Technology Investment

Technology should not be seen as the goal or something that consumers will enjoy per-se, rather, it is an enabler of awesome loyalty experiences, whatever that means for your program. If you chose poorly and save at all costs, you will instead spend days fixing the basics and writing “We will be back soon” memos.

SAQ ensured the program was backed by strong and future-proof technology to avoid limiting the experiences.

The next frontier will be connecting ERP/POS data with their program, to offer a more seamless purchasing experience – with real-time in-store inventory data and faster order delivery.

While these features go beyond the scope of narrowly-defined customer program, they are clearly achieving an amazing omnichannel customer experience.

Align and Conquer

Starting or re-starting any customer program is a big decision. Unlike other projects, this one will be directly visible to your customers – you will be actively telling everyone to join it and participate. Also, you cannot just scrap it or rework it for the next 3-5 years without risking a PR and customer experience disaster. So plan ahead of time and take time to bring executive management on board.

Customer programs like “Inspire” are multidisciplinary, and count on involving colleagues from Finances, Operations, Marketing, Technology, Legal, Data science, etc.

Big Vision, Small Steps

That’s the mantra we always discuss with our clients. It is easy to see a major program from the likes of 7-Eleven or Lidl and want to have all bells and whistles from day one. But the truth is that like Rome, those programs were also not built in a day.

In fact, 7-Eleven took fifteen years to get where they are now, with know-how and invaluable learnings from online and in-store teams.

So we prefer to underpromise & overdeliver.

You should always start with a proposition that can be communicated in 10 seconds by everyone on your team and your brand advocates.

A proposition that will stand the test of time as you will want to keep it for 3-5 years.

Make sure you can deliver this proposition with a great customer experience and then, and only then, build on top of that!

And build gradually, so that every new loyalty program feature can be absorbed by your technology, marketing, and instore teams – and also adopted by clients.

So cheers to SAQ, Nevine and Inspire.

Good luck and thank you for the inspirations, both to us as customer marketing professionals, and also, to us as private citizens who love to get inspired!

About the Author

Jakub Minks is a dynamic entrepreneur and consumer marketing tech expert with a passion for exploring the intersection of technology, society, and economics. As the CEO and co-founder of TRIFFT Loyalty Cloud all-in-one loyalty software and early member of Exponea (now Bloomreach) CDP, Jakub has been at the forefront of developing innovative solutions that have transformed the retail and consumer experience.

With six years of marketing tech experience and for years of experience as McKinsey & Company consultant, Jakub has successfully managed major projects and advised top FMCG and telecom clients on sales transformation topics. His expertise in these areas has helped him to develop a deep understanding of the evolving needs of modern consumer-facing businesses.

Jakub holds a PhD in epigenetics from the University of British Columbia, which has given him a unique perspective on the intersection of science, technology and business.

In his free time, Jakub enjoys spending time with his three kids and pursuing his love of outdoor activities such as hiking, skitouring, and traveling. He is also a baseball fan and an avid listener of great podcasts (like Let’s Talk Loyalty)!

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