Six Non-Discount Reward Ideas to Make Your Loyalty Program Stand Out

Image montage showing 3 different examples of "non-discount" restaurant loyalty

Coupons, discounts, freebies. Terms that used to be synonymous with “loyalty” trade long-term brand erosion for near-term gains. To build emotional connections that actually drive lifetime value for today’s customers and don’t cost a fortune, you need to do something that goes beyond traditional spend X, get Y benefits.

Thanx has been at the forefront of defining what the next era of loyalty means for restaurants, innovations we have coined “Loyalty 3.0”. Offering on-brand, distinct, exclusive benefits are essential for standing out, staying relevant, and driving engagement with your customers. 

Here are six unique, non-discount and experiential reward ideas to grow customer loyalty.

Screenshot of In-N-Out "Not so secret" menu
“Not so secret menu” from In-N-Out

Secret & Hidden Menus

While some secret menus are “not-so-secret” – think In-N-Out’s animal style or protein style burgers – limiting access to your menu is a tried-and-true marketing tactic to create buzz and drive interest. Even if the secret is out on certain menu items, the opportunity still exists to leverage enthusiasm around these offerings to drive the adoption of your loyalty program without ever having to give a single dollar off. Noodles & Company recently did just this, making their most requested pasta dish available to loyalty members only via a hidden menu. When your loyalty members are the only audience able to gain access to items on a secret menu, you incentivize engagement with a loyalty program while fostering brand affinity with these guests.

Image via Chipotle Mexican Grill

Early Access

Giving your VIPs the first chance to try new and LTO menu items is a fantastic way to make your best customers feel special without extending discounts or freebies. Recently, Chipotle gave their loyalty program members early access to their new smoked brisket offering before it hit their general menu. Chipotle’s 24 million loyalty members had two full days to try the new protein before anyone else. There are also operational benefits to this loyalty perk. A preview of new or LTO menu items works as a “soft launch” for these products – a chance to work out operational kinks and get your staff comfortable with new protocols for both front and back of the house before the broader launch.

Taco Bell New Year's Eve celebration photo
Image via Taco Bell

Exclusive Events

Tasting dinners, happy hours, chef meet-and-greets – these are just a few examples of the types of events where loyal customers flock. Taco Bell recently invited their highest tier of loyalty members to an exclusive New Year’s Eve celebration in Time Square. For every type of restaurant format and concept, an on-brand event creates a memorable experience for valuable customers. For QSR burger chains, host a VIP tasting event focus group for the new burger you are testing. For a quickly growing fast-casual concept, invite your best customers from other locations to a “friends and family” preview dinner before your next unit opens. For top spenders at your full-service restaurants, reward guests with a happy hour drink flight to test the latest from your mixology team. If you are lucky enough to have a celebrity chef at your helm, then a cookbook signing or meet and greet will give your superfans the experience of a lifetime.

Photo of Portillo's snowglobe swag
Image via Portillo’s

Merchandise and Swag

Your brand might already be selling merchandise and swag to customers –-shirts, hats, and stickers are the usual suspects. But restaurants should push the envelope, creating unique merch items to catch customers’ eyes and win their loyalty. For example, Chicagoans residing in any part of the country can feel closer to home and their favorite Portillo’s Hot Dogs by purchasing fun items like an Italian beef pool float or snow globe from their website. But you don’t have to venture too far away from your core offerings to create coveted swag. Starbucks’ customers can redeem points for more conventional merchandise such as coffee beans or mugs. Though these items may seem traditional or expected from a coffee chain, the coffee brand’s array of tumblers and reusable cups have a cult-like following, with some cups fetching as much as $1,875 with collectors. These items can be offered as exclusive benefits to reward certain behavior and encourage participation in your program. What’s more, these perks are an operationally painless way to motivate guests to order frequently and spend more without relying on a monetary discount. Exclusive merchandise can also be a part of a surprise initiative that delivers your best customers an unexpected perk to generate real delight.

Example "Skip the Line" pass mobile app UI to highlight possibilities of Special Passes with restaurant loyalty programs
“Skip the Line” Pass Example

Special Passes

Imagine the feeling of shuffling past an endless queue of customers, being ushered quickly beyond the velvet rope, all eyes on you as you move directly to the front of the line or are ushered into VIP reserved seating. We’ve seen this trope in movies or in real life at nightclubs, concerts, and other events – so much so that even reading about the experience is incredibly evocative. This is a feeling you can give your best customers regularly. And playing to your customers’ feelings is at the core of building an emotional connection between them and your brand. Special passes like “skip the line,” preferred seating, and members-only parking create a first-class experience for your loyalty members while showing them you value their time and patronage. It’s also a great way to create buzz and show non-loyalty members the perks of engagement.

Photo of a person's hand holding a phone with the Velvet Taco mobile app highlighting giveaway
Image via Velvet Taco

Mega-Rewards and Ultimate Experiences

Offering an over-the-top reward or the chance to win a high-value prize is a great way to generate press and media attention while also saying “thanx” to top-tier guests. There are many examples of national chains leveraging this strategy to generate awareness of their loyalty programs. Red Lobster’s Gold or Platinum My Rewards members recently had the chance to enter sweepstakes to become the chain’s new “Chief Biscuit Officer.” Contestant winners earned $1,000 in rewards gift cards, extra Cheddar Bay Biscuits with to-go or delivery orders, the chance to “weigh in on upcoming new dishes” and VIP status at a Red Lobster location of the winner’s choice. Pizza Hut celebrated the launch of its rewards program “Hut Rewards” by giving away free pizza for life

Even if your brand is not national or publicly traded, finding a distinctive way to ensure your elite customers feel appreciated is an important part of any loyalty strategy. Dallas-based brand Velvet Taco recently announced they are giving five lucky loyalty members a chance to earn a trip to Dallas and attend an exclusive Weekly Taco Feature tasting. Island’s Restaurants, with locations in California, Nevada, and Arizona, gives customers enrolled in their Rewards Program a chance to win a roundtrip, four-night escape to Hawaii

After enjoying incredible perks like these, it is hard to imagine any customer not becoming a super fan and loyal brand advocate for life.

Distinct Loyalty is the Future of Loyalty

Thanx is excited to help restaurant marketers unleash their creativity in developing truly differentiated rewards and loyalty programs that don’t compromise brand values. Our latest platform innovations will make it easier than ever for restaurants to offer customers non-discount and experiential rewards distinct to their brand’s unique identity. For customers, this means personalized engagement with perks designed to incentivize desired behaviors without devaluing the brand. Talk to our loyalty experts and discover how the Thanx platform can power distinct, experiential rewards for your brand.

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