Feature Article - March/April 2017

The Ongoing Evolution of Incentives & Rewards

A Roundtable Discussion With IMRA

By Joe Bush


There's no doubt that incentive programs are connected with healthy and growing businesses, and we know that because of data provided by the industry's top advocate groups, including the Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) and the Incentive Manufacturers & Representatives Alliance (IMRA), which is a strategic industry group (SIG) of the Incentive Marketing Association (IMA).

Finding out why these motivational rewards work so well comes from speaking with the folks in the industry who twist the bolts and hammer the nails on the process, tactics and strategies that drive the end results. Who better to talk trends, lessons, evolution and best practices than the people who are on the front lines every day and have been for years?

This Q&A with IMRA board members focuses on drawing out their expertise in helping businesses maneuver in and through the burgeoning marketplace and to set their corporate gifting, loyalty and recognition programs up for success for all involved parties.

Daily, this mix of veterans address topics such as:

  • Small businesses' beliefs about how merchandise incentives like apparel, electronics and food/beverage affects morale and performance.
  • Attempting to get small businesses (between $1 million and $50 million in sales) to buy into the use of reps, who can provide benefits like below-MSRP pricing, customization capabilities and more.
  • Using the right incentive for the demographic or occasion or result sought.
  • Aligning the incentive programs with organizational goals.
  • The importance of strong communications before, during and after incentive programs.
  • When to use cash—if ever—and when to use merchandise, online and gift cards as rewards.
  • When and for what and whom are travel incentives right?
  • The crucial part played by participation feedback during and after a program, as well as performance tracking.

Incentive program executives work in an exciting time, as the current IRF Trends study shows that the number of American businesses using non-cash rewards has risen to 84 percent, from just 26 percent in 1996. Yet there is much opportunity for growth, especially in travel incentives, which less than half of American businesses use. There is also still room to grow for merchandise and gift card usage, as only 60 percent and 70 percent of U.S. companies use these, respectively.

As 2017 progresses, the industry is staying on top of: the use of emotional engagement by strategic choice of rewards and incentives; the fact that almost 90 percent of large businesses say they have technology in place to support their incentives and reward programs; technology trends that include more engagement with social, wearable, predictive and view-altering technologies; consolidation in the incentives and rewards industry, not only on the supplier side but also among incentive houses and meeting service providers; and the emergence of the influence of globalization on all types of reward and recognition programs, not just travel.