3 Ways How Canadian Loyalty Programs Differ from the Rest of the World



Contrary to popular belief, Canada is not a 51st American state.  The country, its inhabitants, and their preferences are significantly different from their neighbours to the South.  Many American retailers, such as Target, Nordstrom, Bed, Bath & Beyond, have tried to replicate their strategy in Canada and unfortunately, failed miserably.  Canadians are just built differently. 

We are a large country geographically (2nd largest in the world) but have a population of only 40M people.  Approximately 90% of Canada’s population lives within 100 miles of the U.S. border.  We are a country of immigrants who embrace their roots: more than 8.3M people, (23.0%) of the population, were or had ever been, landed immigrants or permanent residents in Canada.  Multiculturalism matters!

Many industries are run by a handful of very large players, including:

  • Banking: with 5 major and heavily regulated, stable banks
  • Telecom
  • Grocery
  • Department stores
  • Airlines
  • Oil & gas


As the grandparents of successful loyalty coalition programs, Canadian consultants and practitioners have learnings to share with the rest of the world.


  1. Coalitions once ruled the day. Now they are adapting, but partnerships are still vital.


It all started with Air Miles (a coalition of retailers) and Aeroplan (Air Canada’s loyalty program).  These two coalition programs were the epitome of consumer loyalty for more than 2 decades. 

More recently, Air Miles has faced significant challenges with maintaining sponsors (i.e., merchants who issued their currency) within the program.  This resulted in bankruptcy and a speedy acquisition by its main banking sponsor, the Bank of Montreal (BMO).  Air Miles is now branching out into new territories, such as card-linked offers and new sponsorships, such as Dollarama, a deep discounter that never participated in loyalty.

Aeroplan didn’t escape its share of troubles, with being spun off from Air Canada to being purchased by TD Bank, and eventually bought back by Air Canada.  It is also evolving by adding new partners that appeal to busy commuters, including Starbucks and Uber.  They also partnered with Bell Canada, a major telecom provider, to provide free messages onboard flights and free wifi to visitors to Canada.

However, partnerships are now expanding beyond the two traditional coalitions that are giving them a run for their money:

  • SCENE+ started as a joint venture between Cineplex (movie theatres) and Scotiabank (a bank) but has since added a third partner in Sobeys (a grocer), plus Home Hardware (a home improvement retailer) and a family-friendly chain of restaurant brands. It is becoming a coalition in everything but its name.
  • Canadian Tire Triangle program has many brands under its own retail umbrella, including Canadian Tire, Marks, Party City, SportChek, etc. Plus, it recently announced a partnership with Petro-Canada, one of Canada’s major oil & gas retailers and wholesalers.

The bottom line is that loyalty programs are realizing that they need to provide value beyond what they can offer and more earn and burn opportunities, particularly through everyday spend categories, such as gas and grocery, to get their members to a reward faster.


  1. You can’t have a credit card without an underlying loyalty program.


This is a fact in Canada.  Other than secure and cash-back products, a credit card must be aligned with a major loyalty program.  Having a co-brand credit card allows members to earn points everywhere (within and outside of the loyalty program operating brand), thereby accumulating enough points to be able to redeem rewards relatively quickly.  Without an associated credit card, members are not likely to be able to ever redeem for a meaningful reward. 


The reverse is also true.  A general-purpose (i.e., not private-label) payment card provides the brand with a view and data on spend outside of the program and in relevant categories.  Plus, a bank partner in a program drives the vast majority of all points issuance, which is a great source of funding for the program.


  1. Personalized programs win hearts.


The PC Optimum program by Loblaw (a grocery store) and Shopper’s Drug Mart (a pharmacy owned by Loblaw) has been beloved by Canadians through a few iterations.  This program’s personalization lies at the heart of this love.  Every week, PC Optimum’s mobile app is loaded with company and vendor-funded offers, from the SKU to the brand, to the category, to the department, and to the whole store level, that are highly personalized for each member.  Some offers are continuity, some are cross-sell or up-sell, and some are just a thank you for continuing to buy that item. 

Amazon Prime, Starbucks, and Sephora’s Beauty Insider, though American, are highly beloved, used, and penetrated in Canada, all of which excel in personalization and data usage.   Similarly, Canadian Tire’s Triangle does a great job utilizing the data across its many brands to provide relevant offers and product recommendations.

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