loyalty cards and loyalty programs: part 1

Partially in response to Steve Shario’s post on biopolitics here is an old post that I was a long way off finishing and have decided to post in parts as I have time. I addded the last paragraph to inidicate where the other three parts are headed. They are some rough drafts of ideas I am working on for a book chapter.

One common knot I tried to untie all semester with my students in the Consumer Culture unit I tought was regarding loyalty cards and/or programs.

Maurizio Lazzarato points to the work of Zarifian to indicate one way to understand the function of ‘loyalty’. The long two paragraph extract below highlights, first, the biopolitical dimensions of consumerism (not in the bios=life=biology sense of some interpretations of biopolitics) and, second, the importance of the virtual feedforward loops that cultivate and then harness anticipation as an affective or ‘felt tendency’ for guiding consumer behaviour:

[C]ompetition between companies is aimed not at conquering a market but at ‘capturing a clientele’, at building a customer capital which is managed monopolistically. The market, as understood by political economy, does not exist or is identified with constitution/capute of customers. Two elements are essential tto this strategy: building customer loyalty and having the capacity to renew what is on offer through innovation. The space within which transforms the co-operation between minds into a public/clientele. The capture of a clientele and the building of its loyalty means first and foremost capturing attention and memory, capturing minds, creating and capturing desires, beliefs (the sensible) and networks.

All production is the production of services, that is a transformation of “the conditions of activity and the capacity for future actions of customers, users, and the public”, which in the end always aims at the ‘mode of life’. The service does not satisfy a pre-existing demand, but it must anticipate it, it must ‘make it happen’. This anticipation takes place entirely within the domain of the virtual by mobilising resources such as linguistic resources and language, communication, rhetoric, images, etc. The anticipation of services by the virtual and signs has the advantage, on the one hand, to be able to use all properties of language, thus opening up the exploration of several possibles, and, on the other hand, to enable work on sense through communication. (193)

In the micro-physics of consumer exchange and consumption the services may very well satisfy demands that do not pre-exist and which are co-individuated with the correlate consumer subjectivity through the capacity communicative apparatus to incite (not determine or dominate) consumption. What I find fascinating is the interplay of various temporalities in this process. Lefebvre may have called this rhythmanalysis, but perhaps something is lost in translation as each iterative individuation differentially repeats what apear to be circular power relations in different ways. So it is not circular or rhythmic, but an iterative spiral and heterogeneous.

The rates of change, or different capacities to absorb and nullify or magnify the effect of contingencies, exist at thresholds of different scales. The ‘new’ for a consumer (‘innovation’) is not the same ‘new’ for the business. For example, consumers may understand each version of an iPod to be ‘new’, but from the biopolitical perspective of individuating or capturing a clientele, Apple wants the iPod consumer base to at least remain the same or at most grow. Apple has to ensure the iPod is different enough so nothing changes.

These different rates of change then pose an interesting problem when trying to produce customer loyalty, particularly in those circumstances where there is no necessary reason why a consumer should use one service or commodity over another, such as grocery shopping where the ‘same’ commodity and service is provided by myriad businesses. One way I have been thinking about this over the course of the semester and discussing it with students in lectures and tutorials, is through the function of loyalty cards and programs.

The character of ‘loyalty’ has changed over the last 20-30 years. Customer ‘loyalty’ used to be connected to some quality of the service or commodity on offer. People shopped and consumer because they were serviced by their local shop, they travelled because of some special quality provided by another business, and sought to distinguish themselves from other consumers through these qualilty items. This qualitative dimension produced business-based ‘goodwill’. ‘Goodwill’ is a social relation associated with a business premised on trust, quality and other such positive social traits. ‘Goodwill’ is worth something and is often figured in calculations of business worth. The ‘loyalty’ of contemporary ‘loyalty cards’ is not premised on ‘goodwill’ but a quantitative metric driven by outcomes-based assessment of economic exchange.

What I am interested in is 1) the relations of temporality between the incorporeal infrastructures of ‘saving’ and consumers inculcated in the logic and practice of using the cards, and therefore the microphysics of power in these relations of ‘saving’ and a global market-based cultural economy, 2) the affective character of these relations and the habitualised practices and appreciation of tendential fields of possibility that emerged around contingency and the rhythmic harnessing of contingency into the iterative rhythms of the cultural economy calendar (e.g. xmas, etc), and 3) the way constellations of power relations enable or incicte consumers to consume in a properly biopolitical fashion (mobilising entire populations), so practices of consumption become defined by how contingencies are processed congruently with the fields of possibility overdetermined by a synergistic network of commecial interests.

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