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Inspiring Loyalty: Bernhard Brugger

Growing demand for contactless transactions, spurred on by the COVID-19 pandemic, has seen Munich-based loyalty app PAYBACK flourish. But it is the platform’s ability to meet both consumer and partner needs that really sets it apart from its competition, according to CEO Global Loyalty Coalition and Executive Vice President American Express Bernhard Brugger.

Bernhard Brugger, CEO Global Loyalty Coalition and Executive Vice President of PAYBACK

More than 10 million customers now use the PAYBACK app in Germany, putting it among the country’s top three shopping apps. Launched in 2000, the company currently has more than 31 million active users and 680 retail and online partners in Germany alone – and has spread to 11 countries including Italy, Mexico, Poland and Austria.

Berni, as he is known, has been there since the beginning, joining as Head of Products and Services after stints at Versace and Philips. After steadily climbing the ranks, he was appointed Executive Vice President American Express and CEO Global Loyalty Coalition by parent company American Express in 2018.

“During the pandemic, we saw our mobile growth really accelerate because people wanted touchless payments, so this was a true catalyst,” he tells The CEO Magazine. “We are happy that we started in this area early on, putting us ahead of other mobile payment providers.”

PAYBACK uses data-driven marketing to help companies create and execute integrated campaigns. “It’s about providing the right offers to the right customers at the right time in the right channels,” Berni explains.

“The aim is always to give customers the greatest possible advantage when shopping and, at the same time, we offer our partners the best return on investment.”

It’s about providing the right offers to the right customers at the right time in the right channels.

Users can redeem points for vouchers, rewards or Lufthansa air miles. They can also use them to make donations to more than 150 regional, national and global charity projects. To date, points worth more than €6 million have been donated in this way.

Constant innovations are crucial to stay ahead of the curve, but its most unique proposition to date is PAYBACK GO, a location-based service in the PAYBACK app, which matches customers with relevant offers and promotions in real time.

“The app even changes its colour, look and feel when you check in at the chosen partner,” Berni adds. The company itself has also had to adapt, growing from a launch team of just 20 to its current tally of more than 1,300 staff. American Express Group’s acquisition of Loyalty Partner in 2011 was another significant adjustment.

Most recently, massive upheaval came in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ensuring constant communication with colleagues, partners and customers is critical during this disjointed time to ensure everyone stays safe and able to continue delivering their services.

“We really accelerated all possibilities to interact with all stakeholders and we had a motto – ‘No lockdown for Loyalty’,” Berni reveals.

Furthermore, using its data-driven marketing approach, the company was able to identify and adapt to changing customer needs and shopping trends in real time, putting it in a strong and profitable position. This gave it the opportunity to prepare for longer-term growth.

“It’s important to use the situation and to think about what we can do now in order to come out of this crisis even stronger,” he says. Despite all these changes, the company culture appears to be flourishing.

The PAYBACK holding company Loyalty Partner was named a Top Employer by the Top Employers Institute for the 15th time in a row in January in recognition of its outstanding employee conditions, even during the pandemic upheaval.

During this time, all colleagues from one day to the next were able to work from home, thanks to the company’s early adoption of information technology infrastructure that made the transition to a home office environment as smooth as possible.

“If we hadn’t already had that journey, we would’ve had a huge problem in our company last year,” Berni reflects. Parents also benefited from greater flexibility while team members stayed connected, thanks to regular webex updates for the PAYBACKers and the internal app for colleagues.

More than 50% of its workforce is made up of women, but diversity in all of its forms is top of mind for Berni. “A company can only be as successful as it is diverse,” he says.

“We have teams with different views, with different lifestyles. This is also important to understand our broad customer base and different needs, and to have critical discussions to come up with the best solutions.”

PAYBACK also respects the diversity of its customers, some of whom are still not quite ready to embrace digital, preferring physical coupons. While this approach may be at odds with its environmental aspirations, PAYBACK ensures it fulfils its customers’ requirements in the most eco-friendly way possible, using fully recyclable materials.

Berni’s final words of advice? “Don’t forget to be fun,” he says. “If your customers don’t enjoy interacting with you, that’s when you’re in trouble.”

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