In conversation with George Wilson-Howell, head of product, EMEA, global merchant loyalty at SessionM, a Mastercard company

Mastercard expanded its presence in the merchant loyalty space with its 2019 acquisition of SessionM. Loyalty Magazine asks George Wilson-Howell Head of Product, EMEA, Global Merchant Loyalty at SessionM, a Mastercard company, why this is.

George Wilson-Howell

Loyalty Magazine: Mastercard has had a strong loyalty division for some time. What is the significance of its acquisition of SessionM?

George Wilson-Howell: Loyalty is a significant part of our Data & Services business at Mastercard. We work very closely across the network, helping issuers and merchant brands with their loyalty programs – our scale remains unrivalled with 80 million merchants and growing. Our loyalty business is built on cutting-edge technology to serve segments such as retail, consumer packaged goods (CPG), airlines, telco, quick-service restaurants (QSR), casual dining and fuel.

SessionM was acquired in 2019 to strengthen our team and bring greater capabilities to these segments by combining our assets and the outstanding people that have built a solid product and business. As a result, we are currently servicing over 1.3 trillion points under management.

LM: What have you done so far?

GW-H: Since 2019 we have been cementing this relationship, working with several significant global brands across all regions in Retail, CPG, Airlines, Fuel, Telcos and QSR by embedding the SessionM proposition into our business and growing our client base giving them the ability to leverage a turn-key set of solutions to drive their program objectives.

LM: What advantage does Mastercard have in terms of data availability?

GW-H: At Mastercard, we have committed ourselves to ethical data practices. We adhere to high standards of security, fraud prevention, data privacy and governance, as seen in our six Data Responsibility Principles that guide our practices as responsible data stewards. This commitment yields mindful innovation. We offer the people, platforms and proprietary data to support the entire consumer lifecycle from acquisition to retention, with continuous measurement and optimization at every step. Whether you need a partner to construct data-driven acquisition campaigns on your behalf or the most effective technology to build engaging loyalty programs and personalized consumer experiences, we have you covered. With ownership of the entire marketing ecosystem, you can seamlessly transition consumers across their journey with analytics to inform personalized actions and reduce friction. 

As retail brands and issuers want more from their customer relationships, we can offer a better understanding of how to navigate the customer journey through our solutions. For example, our most recent acquisition announcement of Dynamic Yield will help our customers ensure even greater personalisation. The importance of insights is growing, and we are responding to this need from businesses.

LM: Can you give an example of how a business can benefit from Mastercard Insights?

GW-H: We use our insights, tools, and expertise to enhance every step of the customer lifecycle. From building loyalty programs and identifying key audiences to creating consumer behaviour and lookalike models and developing marketing creatives for multichannel campaigns. Mastercard resources and capabilities allow us to drive the right message to the right consumer, which ultimately drives the desired outcome for the brand. 

LM: You have mentioned the importance of end-to-end loyalty solutions. Can you explain what that means and why it is important?

GW-H: Expectations for loyalty programs are evolving. Consumers want personalized, seamless loyalty experiences that deliver meaningful value at every touchpoint. It is vital that our customers can make data-driven decisions and offer benefits and rewards that matter most to their customers and engage with consumers on their terms by responding to their individual demands. Mastercard’s end-to-end loyalty solutions help organizations foster lasting connections through our technology platforms, data capabilities, marketing services, and subject matter expertise. 

The ‘next generation’ perspective is important here because the propositions must resonate with the consumer through their whole customer journey and be personalised, which means you must be there, wherever the customer is, and on whatever device, app, social network, or product. So, it may be a co-brand card, or a retail loyalty programme, or a payment rewards initiative, in an airport, a restaurant or retail store.

It is possible to understand the consumer, and not just for points and services, but also to tap into their brand preferences and emotional drivers. Loyalty is an outcome of effective product design and customer experience, which drives an emotional connection with a consumer.

LM: What would you say are the chief differentiators of SessionM, a Mastercard company?

SessionM, a Mastercard company, panies—to forge stronger and more profitable consumer relationships. From building loyalty programs and identifying key audiences to consumer behaviour modelling and developing marketing creatives for multichannel campaigns, our broader loyalty team does it all.

At Mastercard, we have ability to help brands around the world deliver personalized, real-time offers and comprehensive campaign measurement based on robust, data-driven insights. As businesses continue to reinvent their loyalty programs to better serve increasingly digital consumers, we help brands create and manage consumer engagement and loyalty programs with industry-leading technology that powers a complete end-to-end loyalty solution. We offer strategic services and insights, ideation and design, and fully managed lifecycle marketing from development and delivery to measurement and optimization.

LM: What makes SessionM, a Mastercard company stand out from other loyalty service providers?

GW-H: As part of Mastercard, it’s our breadth of solutions across the global network. Our customer engagement and loyalty platforms empower the world’s most innovative brands—including retailers, airlines, restaurants, and CPG companies—to forge stronger and more profitable consumer relationships. From building loyalty programs and identifying key audiences to consumer behaviour modelling and developing marketing creatives for multichannel campaigns, our broader loyalty team does it all.

It’s also important to mention the consulting side of our business. This is a pool of loyalty practitioners in our organisation who help drive the strategy for our customers. We can bring that to the table for individual programmes. There is also Mastercard Labs as a Service, which helps brands ideate through design thinking by shepherding a process of analysis, agile development, and digital-first methodologies in a collaborative environment to future-proof businesses.

LM: The Covid lockdowns of the past two years have changed customer behaviour, how should companies respond with their customer loyalty offerings?

GW-H: Covid has had a massive impact, especially on how consumers are interacting with brands. So how companies respond – which needs to be multi-channel – is crucial. It is back to the customer journey – and ensuring communications go across any channel.

To that effect, Covid amplified the need for businesses to be digital. As lockdowns went into effect across the globe, consumers grew demand for seamless experiences without human interaction. These dynamics hold long-term implications for consumer brands. Circumstances change, and the way we react to them changes. Despite this, the fundamentals of loyalty programs have remained constant: Brands need to create relevant, rewarding, easy-to-use programs that draw in new customers and keep their existing ones coming back whilst adapting to consumer behaviour as seen through the growth of online delivery. 

LM: What is the Mastercard approach to data, especially considering a policy environment that includes GDPR and other new data laws?

GW-H: We work closely with regulators and data protection advocates to create practices that not only comply with advancing data requirements like GDPR but help to raise the bar. Using data transparently and in ways that promote benefits for customers and cardholders, we create useful insights that, in some cases, can even make the world a better place.

LM: SessionM, a Mastercard company, is Platinum+ sponsor of the International Loyalty Awards 2022, what is the significance of this.

GW-H: Loyalty has evolved a great deal from a transactional relationship to engaging with target audiences to better understand and service them. When Mastercard acquired SessionM, it was to enhance the capabilities available to our segment customers and marry loyalty expertise and data capabilities. We have been at the forefront of the loyalty business for over two decades, and it is important to get our brand in front of CMOs, CDOs and CTOs and influencers who are considering a loyalty solution. We are proud of our capabilities and grateful for the global visibility that the International Loyalty Awards affords. We bring a unique perspective with our payments insights across industry segments, cutting-edge technology and global expertise, and value our seat at the table to discuss the future of loyalty.