by Alex Palmer | April 11, 2017
Today saw the opening of the inaugural Flourish: The Growth of Branded Currency conference. The gathering, taking place in Omaha, NE at the Doubletree by Hilton Omaha Downtown, brought together suppliers and buyers in all areas of branded currency -- including gift cards, promotional value, points, stored value, and more -- for networking, education, and lively discussion.

The day began with opening remarks from Flourish producers and co-founders of K+H Connection, Holly Glowaty and Kristen Thiry, who welcomed attendees and emphasized the value of finding common ground between the different elements of the industry and thinking of gift cards, points, and more as all part of the same "branded currency" ecosystem.

"We hope you will leave here having created partnerships that will make your program flourish, because you looked at it with a fresh perspective," said Glowaty.

Thiry emphasized how the event had struck a chord, attracting 48 speakers in 26 sessions over two days, with attendees from more than 90 companies. 

The message of connection and collaboration was brought home by keynote speaker Kate Vitasek, lead researcher at the University of Tennessee and author of six books, including Vested and Getting to We.

She cited a series of economists who expanded or amended the traditional "every man for himself" approach to business. These included Ronald Coase and his theory that the "total cost of ownership" should take into account much more than basic price; as well as John Nash, the man at the center of A Beautiful Mind, who made the case that "the best result comes from everyone in the group doing what's best for himself…and the group."

"When we cooperate, we actually get better results," said Vitasek. 

After laying out the theoretical support for a more collaborative approach to business, Vitasek shared specific case studies that illustrated five rules of effective collaboration.

The first rule, "Outcome-Based, Not Transaction-Based Business Model," she illustrated with the example of Proctor & Gamble. The company was deciding to work with a building management company, and was convinced by Jones Lang LaSalle, not just by looking at cost of janitors per hour, but bigger-picture value (such as offering great food in the cafeteria that encouraged employees to stick around the office). 

"Business happens, but you should look at the end goal, rather than the task," said Vitasek. "Our goals and objectives all need to align with the big picture." 

The keynote was followed by a series of education sessions. In the discussion, "Branded Currency is the Way to Grow," panelists discussed the advantages of thinking of gift cards and loyalty points in terms of "branded content." Panelist Keith Brand, co-founder of TheGiftCardCentre.co.uk and founder of stored value consulting mrif Tefisto Partners, discussed his experience as division vice president of gift cards at Sears as they shifted their thinking from "gift cards" to a broader currency meant for self-use and as a loyalty tool.

"We were minting our own currency, and shoppers were getting discounts and were more engaged with us," said Brand. "Branded digital currency is really going to revolutionize what gift card use could be." 

Martha Weaver, director of merchant relationships at Raise marketplace, emphasized the marketing advantages of branded currency over more traditional incentives.

"When you're giving people $5 or $10 rather than '30 percent off,' it's a much better motivator," she said. "With digital wallets, there are more opportunities to understand who these consumers are, and how you can reengage with those people."

Steve Kane, RVP, business development for Blackhawk Network, discussed "Branded Value: Connecting Brands to People for a Deeper Engagement with Customers."

"We motivate actions by connecting brands and people when branded value is really working," said Kane. "We encourage multiple purposes, repeat customers, influence behavior, increase sales, and more."

Sessions tackling topics from the promotional use of branded currency to best practices in handling gift card fraud were scheduled throughout the following day and a half.