My name is Chayya Bassi, I’ve been in the region in Dubai since 2007. Prior to that, I was based in the UK. My background was hospitality, primarily hospitality sales. I moved to the UE in 2007 and joined a company called Emaar Hospitality Group. Emaar is the largest real estate developer in the region - that’s what they’re primarily known for. They’re also the building owner of Burj Khalifah, the world’s largest shopping mall in Dubai, the Dubai Mall, and many entertainment zones.
When I joined them in 2007, they were launching their hospitality arm. The company was previously focused on hotels like Palace Veda Manzil, and then decided to grow significantly. I joined them for their fitness brand as a Sales and Marketing Manager, and was with them for five years. The brand then got acquired by Fitness First.
I was then asked by Emaar's Mall Group to launch a gift card scheme for Dubai Mall, which I did in 2014 in partnership with Mastercard. Seeing as Dubai Mall has approximately 1600 retail outlets, a mall that size required a solution that was more on the open loop gift card platform, which is why we joined hands with Mastercard and launched the program in 2014. I was then tasked with launching a group-wide loyalty program for Emaar. They wanted a platform that unified all of Emaar’s offerings onto one single proposition, which was Emaar Properties, Emaar Retail, Emaar Mall, Emaar Entertainment, and Emaar Hospitality.
I got all the elements together and we launched in 2016. The program is called U By Emaar, and it’s one of the largest programs in the region today. In 2018, we launched a co-brand credit card with the largest financial provider in the region, bank called Emirates NBD. We then went on to win four awards in our first year.
Enter: Quick Brown Fox Consultancy
In 2018, I resigned from my position as a Director Group Loyalty to launch my own business, which is called Quick Brown Fox Consultancy. A couple of ideas motivated me to launch and go solo. One - when I launched the program U by Emaar for Emaar, I started to get approached by similar companies of similar size asking me to come and do the same for them. Having launched something that was multi-vertical and gained all the experience that came with my work for Emaar, my objective was to expand my knowledge and experience across verticals that I hadn’t worked in, as well as across different regions.
That was the reason I decided to set up QBF Consulting - to see how I could gain more experience by working with different verticals. Because when you get a job, then you’re obviously confined to that particular company, so for my good luck, Emaar hired me as a consultant, which meant I was able to continue to work for them on the side.
Also having gained the experience working for a large conglomerate such as Emaar, I was very fortunate to be guided by some amazing consultants. We had Accenture, Boston Consulting Group, KPMG, you name it. We had all the big guys.
So, one of my biggest learnings and one that I implement with my clients today is that it’s great having strategies in a boardroom, but when it came to implementing and the operational roadblocks that I personally faced in getting my program to market, was something that I believe the market didn’t have the experience for. So, I really had to learn the hard way. While the strategies were great and were getting approved by all the stakeholders in the boardroom, having to then run with them was a whole different story.
That’s the experience and the support I didn’t get. I realised very quickly that what we were delivering was so new into the market that everybody was learning from it, including myself. That was another reason why I decided to go into the market as a loyalty expert - to not only tell you what to do, but more importantly what not to do. I think that that learning combined with wanting to expand my network, as well as my own experience and expanded horizons, was the reason why we decided to launch QBF in 2018.
We’ve now been running the business for 4 years. I’m joined in the business by my partner, who’s also my husband, Manav Fernandez. He launched the GEMS Rewards Program, which is one of the largest education providers. So, we both decided to set up the company with our experiences in tow.
We’ve had some very amazing clients. We also have taken the position of thought leadership in loyalty, so we’ve partnered with a loyalty academy outside of the US. We’re the exclusive provider. Loyalty Academy is the world’s first formal education certification provider in loyalty marketing. It’s called Certification of Loyalty Marketing Professionals (CLMP).
The course can be done online, which is what my partner did during COVID, and he then had the idea to bring it to Dubai, which he felt could benefit from it. Loyalty is a very hot topic in the region and we felt that a lot of people within the marketing departments are being lumbered to work loyalty while having little to none formal experience. That’s why we partnered with Loyalty Academy. We have hosted five workshops as of March 8th, qualifying 111 individuals with the CLMP certification. Our work has recently been recognised by MEA HR and Learning at a ceremony held at the Ritz Carlton, Dubai, where we received an award for “Best L&D for Loyalty Marketing in the MENA region”.
We have taken the position of thought leadership and as loyalty specialists in the loyalty market. This also allows us to build our network. We’ve had all the retail companies sending their colleagues to get certified; we’ve had a lot of real estate companies; banks, airlines, and so we’ve expanded our network. Honestly, in a day, I get 6-8 WhatsApp messages asking us to recommend technology, ask us to recommend colleagues to hire and lots more. It’s the position we wanted to take, so that’s where we are in our journey today, and of course, we’re looking to expand that into multiple directions as we move forward.
We’ve also been very lucky. The pandemic has fast-tracked things for us. I think the loyalty has caught speed during the pandemic and after. Businesses are now realising the importance of knowing your customer. I think we’ve all established that not all customers are alike, and given limited budgets, customers are really zooming in on the customers they want to keep and continue to make happy. Retaining existing customers is far more economical than acquiring new ones, so loyalty really lends itself to helping businesses achieve that, and it’s what we educate our clients on.
What I do enjoy about this region is that I feel that it’s far ahead of the game in many ways when it comes to technology. All the new guys are targeting the region, so we get to experience that here. I think we’re also early adopters here in the region, and we aren’t scared to experiment. If you look at mall loyalty, for example, I have not seen that in many places beyond Dubai. The Dubai Mall has two great loyalty programs - Skywards Miles, which is a great currency, because Dubai is a tourist-led market. I think it was very intelligent the way it was done, because they joined hands with Skywards Emirates, which is the national carrier of the region. They feed into them the market intelligence of where the biggest flights and the majority of the markets are coming from. And by being the largest mall in the world, 95% of the tourists coming into Dubai visit Dubai Mall. The entrance to Burj Khalifah is from Dubai Mall, the world’s largest fountain. If you come to Dubai, you can’t avoid the Dubai Mall, but not necessarily spend. But now because they reward the Skywards miles, Dubai Mall actually attracts a lot of spend from international travellers.
The QBF loyalty approach
Like I said, we launched in 2018, it’s been four years since we started running the business. We have a 3-step approach to working with clients. Each phase is modular to the other.
Phase 1: the strategy/design phase
Phase 2: the implementation phase
Phase 3: Performance management phase
The design phase takes around 12-14 weeks. Once we’re onboarded, we tend to run through the full business requirements. We interact with all the stakeholders in the business that are going to form a part of the loyalty program. Part of that is also understanding all the business objectives and really zooming in on who the customers are. So, for us, objectives before strategy - always.
Once we've understood the objectives and who the customer is, we spend a lot of time doing some local and global benchmarking within the business area. What are the others in the sector doing locally? What are they doing globally? What are some of the best practices that we can take from what’s already out there and what are some of the learnings we can take and apply?
That’s our first phase, which we present to the client and get their feedback on it. We then put a whole strategy together, which is a customer value proposition. This generally combines hard benefits, soft benefits, as well as any sort of strategic alliance they might like to bring on board. Once the strategy is approved, we underpin it with financial feasibility. This is where we prepare a full three-year program (P&L), and at that point, we establish key KPIs of the program, e.g. how many members can you expect in year one, how will those members behave, where is the incrementality coming from?
I’m also a very big fan of and a non-believer that loyalty is a cost center. Loyalty is not a cost center - loyalty’s role is to drive incrementality/incremental revenue for the business, so for me it’s a revenue and a profit center. Traditionally, I’ve had people tell me loyalty is a cost center. It’s not. The purpose of having a loyalty program is understanding and influencing your customer’s behaviour, so you can get more of the share of the wallets, so how can that be a cost center? That’s something that we show in feasibility; what are going to be your key KPIs, how many members are going to join; what segments of this program are going to drive what aspect of incrementality. Is it frequency or is it average transaction value? Is it a share of wallet? This is what we establish in feasibility.
Once the feasibility is approved, we then move to the next phase, which is implementation. We do a full RFP and technical evaluation. We pick the right tech partners, put an RFP together, and we also give our clients a really nice blueprint.
A beautifully designed blueprint - a book containing a wide range of info regarding customer journey, the full feasibility, everything and anything to do with your program. The book is gifted to the CEOs and the CFOs to serve as their loyalty program blueprint. Each book has the client’s branding on it, so all unique.
No other company does it.
Even if they don’t want to continue working with QBF, they can take the blueprint and give it to their tech team to implement. Hasn’t happened so far, however.
The time used during the strategy part of phase 1 is also focused on building trust and building a relationship with the client, so more often than not we’re just told to just get the right tech partner, get the RFP together, and we guide them. We then do a full tech evaluation - we have an independent tech consultant that we bring on board who is impartial. We do the scorecard methodology and with the tech partner in tow, we put a project plan together, end to end; stakeholder management (internal and external); branding; app building, the works.
The above typically takes 9 months to a year, depending on the size of the program. And then, the end result is of course the program going live. The client then has the choice to either have us continue to do a year’s of performance management as the program stabilises (we help recruit the right team members, knowledge share, making sure the team’s comfortable with the program).
Typically, a customer lifecycle with us is 2 1/2 to 3 years. That’s where we end our relationship, though we may receive calls on an ad hoc/project basis to help with some other work. The clients also recommend us, and the business grows.
I’m primarily responsible for sourcing business, as I’m very commercially-led and having spent 13 years with Emaar, I have built a good network and I always know there’ll be a fellow Emar veteran wherever I go. They often call me and ask me to help out.
My partner, Manav Fernandez, is very strategic (and has been in the region for 26 years) and he’s the brand guy. He brings a lot of strategic thinking and the design element on board.
We also have a team that we tend to hire (we work very much like a movie production house) on project basis. One of the things the pandemic has contributed to is that there’s a lot of talent that has gone freelance. A lot of my former colleagues have opened up their freelance businesses, so we tend to bring people and their expertise on board on project basis.
Throughout the strategy phase, for the most part, my partner, Manav, and I work directly with the client. Once we’ve gone into implementation, we have project managers whom we let take the lead on liaising with the client.
Examples of the biggest mall loyalty programs
One is Dubai Mall, of course, that I worked very closely with. I worked more closely on the co-brand credit card because the credit card extends the entire proposition to Dubai Mall. It’s a really brilliant proposition where you can earn and burn across any store in Dubai Mall, on your credit card. It made it very effortless and again, it’s a very generous proposition.
The other one that I worked with where we did the design, implementation and performance management is Galeria Belgrade, which is the largest mall in Serbia.
A recently established beautiful mall, 450 stores on a riverfront in Belgrade. There’s a new township in Belgrade, Belgrade Waterfront and the owners are Abu Dhabi company-based, Eagle Hills. I was onboarded by Eagle Hills (the chairman of Eagle Hills and Emar happens to be the same person) to look at a loyalty program for Belgrade Waterfront.
I was onboarded in 2019 - just before COVID struck - to do the full design strategy for the mall, which we did. We got the approval in December; in January, we started to bid for the technology partners and then we went into a lockdown, which was.. interesting.
Nevertheless, we’ve done a fantastic job with it. It is the mall-based loyalty program, with very generous earnings. You can earn points across all the stores on all your spendings. There are different tiers within the program and it’s fully digital It’s not card-based, however.
The lockdown was an interesting experience, I have to admit. The mall opened in October 2020. I was based in Dubai; the head office was in Abu Dhabi; our technology whizz in Mumbai; the branding agency in London; the client in Belgrade, and the app developer in Novi Sad. So, bringing all the elements together was an interesting experience. It was the first time ever all of us were working remotely, but it also made us realise that we didn’t really need to sit next to one another to get things done. As long as you’re committed to doing what you’re doing, you’ll nail it. We launched the program in October 2020, though due to COVID travel restrictions, I couldn’t be there in person for the launch, which made me a little nervous. We opened with a bang, however!
We won an award at the Loyalty 360 for the best marketing campaign ever; we had 40,000 members who already downloaded the app before the mall opened. We ran a very strong campaign: “Who wants to be a millionaire?” - offering 10 million points, which was up to 100,000 euros each for 10 lucky winners.
The beauty was the the points could only be used in the mall, which increased the spend exactly where we wanted it to. It was a winning formula for the retailers. With a mall, the mall sponsors the points, but then the points end up getting spent at Zara, for example. We thought the financial feasibility wasn’t making sense, so we went back to the strategy piece to understand what is a unique offering? What else can we do? We then realised that Galerija Belgrade was looking at having fine dining restaurants. There are many malls in Belgrade, but they all have food courts rather than actual fine dining restaurants.
Galerija Belgrade decided to go with world-class restaurants. It’s a mini Dubai Mall, a luxury mall. They were looking to have up to 60 restaurants, so we put a mall dining program together, subscription-based. We decided to give it for free to gold tier members (everything you put in there is going to be buy one, get one free). Each restaurant has to give us 3 offers, e.g. buy a glass of wine, get a glass of wine; buy a main course; get a main course; buy a dessert, get a dessert.
That really became a big part of the bottom line - it came at no additional cost to the mall management team except for liaising with the restaurants and getting them to onboard.
We got an amazing amount of support from the retailers. Because the pandemic was hanging over us, people weren’t so keen on going out, but the program encouraged that. What I really enjoyed about the Galleria Belgrade team is they were like a sponge; they were just waiting to absorb whatever it is that we could share with them.
How to ace mall loyalty programs
When you’re looking at a mall loyalty program, there are two things that are very important to keep in mind for a winning formula. First, you have to be operationally and financially agnostic of the retailer. As long as the retailer is not asked to do any work operationally and you are not asking them to contribute to the loyalty program, it’s a winning formula. Retailers have their own loyalty programs (which is something to think about) and they’re in multiple malls. They’re not going to favour yours over another, because for them it’s their retail brand that matters, not the particular mall.
Retailer expects the mall to do the hard work to bring the people, because they’re already there, in your home, paying your rent. That was my biggest learning when working with Dubai Mall. The consultants at the time recommended that all the retailers pay for the points and when I approached the retailers, I was shocked. All the retailers were totally against it (“no way, we’re already paying your rent”). What they care about is: what intelligence are you going to drive to US? It’s your job to drive footfall to this mall.
So, when working on a mall loyalty program, it’s important to drive intelligence, so insights can be delivered to the retailers to support them and win them over. One of the good things about Galerija Belgrade is that they were very clear that the day they open the mall, they want to know who their customers are, and they will not open the mall without the loyalty program. So, in the mall app, loyalty is at the heart of it. Which is brilliant.
Difference between single-brand loyalty programs and mall loyalty programs
Very different. The biggest difference is the financials. There are two to three key differences, really.
With a single retailer, you own the business and what you give in terms of rewards comes back to you directly. So, financially, it makes more sense. Also, when you own the business, you can do direct POS integration, so it’s a seamless customer experience. With a mall, you can’t do that.
So, financials, seamless customer experience, and technology as well. You need one loyalty platform that’s going to talk to one type of point of sale. So, when you are looking at a business-owned loyalty program with their own brands, it’s really simple. It’s financially more lucrative and the financial model is a bit more basic; it guarantees seamless customer experience because you can do a direct point of sale since you own the point of sale and the customer. And also technology-wise, you’re looking at a very simple loyalty management system to do integration at one point of sale.
With a mall, it’s very different, because for starters, it wants to capture all kinds of customers. In a mall, you have many stores and the mall wants to know who’s the customer that’s walking in. For most of the malls, there’s two ways to know who the customers are. One - someone who’s connected to their Wi-Fi, which doesn’t really give them enough information and it only tells them that this person is in their mall and for how long, but they can’t establish how much they’ve spent. That’s why the mall has to think of some very creative ways of capturing customers’ data. As a customer, I know you’ve come into my mall, I may even know that you’ve parked your car in my car park. I know when you came in, how long you stayed and when you left, because you’re connected to my Wi-Fi. I can tell how often you come, but that doesn’t capture the actual value. That person could very well be a staff member.
As such, there’s a massive difference between a mall and a brand-owned business. The malls have to be far more savvy and creative in establishing how they’re going to capture customers’ data. Generally, there’s two ways of doing this.
Receipt scanning, where customers upload their receipts. This, however, requires a lot of technology, like OCR technology. There’s more velocity checks - is it a duplicate receipt? Is it from my mall? You’d be surprised how often people upload receipts from other malls. With Galleria Belgrade, people even uploaded their bus tickets. So, you need to ensure the authenticity of that transaction, because you obviously don’t want to be rewarding shopping at competitor malls. Your mall is funding this and financially, it can be very hard.
From a mall perspective, loyalty can become a cost center, but they have to justify it by collecting customer data and and leveraging that data to drive revenue for their retailers, because malls make money from retailers paying the rent. In a mall environment, the retailer is the primary customer, not the end user.
If the retailer isn’t making any money, the mall isn’t either, so the focus is to drive revenue. And now with all things being online, there is a lot of competition and retailers asking whether they actually need a physical shop.
So, it’s a great question. The strategy of a mall loyalty program has to be far more creative and interactive, and its not as straightforward. It’s not as simple as having a customer buy something, crediting them with due points and that’s it. As a mall, I have to think of different ways of incentivising the customer to take the effort to upload the receipt. That’s why generosity is a big one for mall loyalty programs.
Am I going to do it for a point half percent? Probably not. Am I going to do it for 2%? More likely. So, generosity, creativity, plus the technology that goes along with it. It has to be far more sophisticated and run by someone who understands the whole receipt scanning process, or the newer tech we’re seeing in the market like card link-up, where you link your credit card and it automatically collects points for both of them.
Both of the above have their pros and cons. Since the mall is already sponsoring the cost of points, it can easily become a cost center. That’s why it’s important for the tech not to cost an arm and a leg, which it easily can with the card link-up solution, where there are many mouths to feed, so to speak. There’s Visa, then there’s the acquirer, there are many costs that add up. So, there are pros and cons, but then the solution offers seamless customer experience.
Still, malls are something that have always intrigued me due to their complexity. It’s taken me time to figure out the best strategy that will drive the customers and engage them with the program. Also, what’s the technology that will offer the best experience and offer greatest benefits to both the retailers and the end customer? Also, how to capitalise on that financial feasibility? So, there has been a lot of learning and that’s a space I really excel in and want to grow in.
Mall loyalty is becoming increasingly popular and “open and they shall come” is no longer the case. Retailers are now relying on insights from the malls, so I’m also a member of the Middle East Council for Shopping Centres here in Dubai. I teach a mall loyalty module, because it is so important to understand that malls now need to know their retailers and that retailers aren’t just going to come to you because you’ve built them a mall (where they pay the rent).
Retailers want to know more about the customers that come in (average spend, shopping frequency etc). So, when I was doing the feasibility in the Belgrade mall, I learnt that the average spend per customer was €20. However, after we decided to collect data at the mall, the average spend increased to €80 euro (a 400% increase!). This allows us to build a business case that when you incentivise and when you get to know your customers through various initiatives such as member events and other creative stuff that keep members engaged, it really pays off.
Most effective mall loyalty program campaigns
More than campaigns, I like to be driven by data. What is the data telling us? One of the things that we see is that people start loyalty programs and then they’re done. For me, the launch of a program is the beginning of many changes. In a mall especially, I feel like you can create some fun experiences because the mall houses retail, F&B, entertainment, so you have many different experiences to offer to your customers. But it's about your relationship with your tenant that you need to leverage. The tenant also wants to know the data. We did that quite well, so we celebrated the opening of the largest cinema in Belgrade, and we partnered with Cineplex to offer monthly reward drops for gold members. Every month, we were dropping a reward within the app, and the results were fantastic.
We also did a cinema ticket campaign, i.e. a complimentary ticket for two. We spoke to Cineplex and we told them that the average spend was XYZ and we’d like to give them something; you’ve just opened up, so marry those kinds of needs and wants.
We had another great example where La Cucina opened and fine dining Italian restaurant. They came to the mall management team saying “we're opening soon - what can you do for us?” So, we ran a member event where we invited our Gold members, 55% of whom turned up, to come and experience the restaurant, offered them a complimentary drink and canapés on the riverfront. It was beautiful. The restaurant was so happy with the turnout, and we got a positive reinforcement on our social media from the customers.
The restaurant also gave attendees a coupon for the next time they came in. They then introduced a masterclass for the members, some interaction with a chef. It’s those kinds of things that you develop and build relationships more than actual campaigns.
We did a lot of campaigns as well, such as double points, Black Friday, and some others, but for me, building relationships is the key to winning over customers. Of course, malls have the added advantage of being able to offer customers different experiences that a brand on its own doesn’t have access to, such as movies, kids entertainment, dining, that they can leverage.
Key stages when implementing a mall loyalty programme
It's definitely crucial to choose the right technology partner, one who understands your strategy and can really deliver on it. Because, like I said, from a loyalty perspective, that depends on what kind of technology or the strategy you're putting forward to capture the end consumer data. That’s why the tech partner plays a massive role.
Then, definitely the user interface. if it's going to be an app, seamless customer experience on the app, the app has to be intuitive. Loyalty programmes are very new in a mall environment, so it has to be something that's educational and intuitive at the same time. Working with an experienced UI expert is very, very important. It makes the life of the business a lot easier, because you're not constantly educating the customer. So, I think technology is definitely crucial when it comes to implementation - the app and the user interface is very, very key.
Another important element is marketing and communication. Member lifecycle communication has to be in place. What happens when you enrol into the programme? What is the next line of communication? What's the response when you send the welcome email or educational communication? Are your benefits clear? Do you know as a customer, why, what's in it for you? Really, I think it kind of mixes with the user interface, the user experience. So for us, that is something that we say has to be very clear.
Another thing I'd like to look at is the go-to-market approach, which is a significant part of the implementation as well. Taking a phased approach, we don't want to go to market with everything on day one - we can afford a phased approach, because I'd rather be educating the customer in bitesize than go all out from the get-go. The consumer isn’t like to process all that information at the speed that you'd like them to. Plus, it gives us an excuse to keep going back and talking to them. But hey, we've now given you this. Now, we've given you that.
I feel that the launch of a loyalty programme is the beginning of many changes. We could sit and iron out and flesh out many possible scenarios. Once we start to see the customer data, we realise the changes we need to make. So I'd rather go to market with smaller offerings, learn, reiterate, and go again. Those are my recommendations.
For more articles like this one, make sure to follow our LinkedIn channel and stay up to date on all our latest content.