Q&A: Ex Air Miles boss behind revolutionary environmentally-driven loyalty scheme Ice


Jude Thorne founded Ice two years ago and already counts John Lewis, M&S and Stagecoach as partners

Jude Thorne is a veteran in the loyalty industry, having worked in the trade for nearly 25 years. She managed British Airway’s Air Miles scheme until 2000, leaving its profits at a rosy £27.2m, the most profitable subsidiary of BA worldwide.

And now she heads up Ice, is an environmentally-driven loyalty scheme founded in 2011 to encourage customers to buy green, with the lure of one Ice point being redeemable as 2p among the scheme’s partners. The big boys have jumped on already, with Eurostar and Stagecoach signing up along with retailing giants M&S and John Lewis. 

How is Thorne planning to shake things up with Ice? I spoke to her to find out more.  

Hi Jude, tell me how Ice came about…

Ice is very different from a lot of other programmes. We’re aiming to get people to buy from companies that are doing their best for the environment.

We wanted to create something to bring all the good bits of loyalty programmes and how successful they are at incentivising customers to shop at certain places, and instead of getting companies with the most amount of customers, really focus on businesses that are doing their best for the environment.

Our mission is to mitigate climate change by mass consumer purchase power. So really it’s about getting people to make better choices. If we can succeed with this in a big way, it can make a big difference to climate change.

How does it work in practise?

We’ve taken the model of loyalty programmes where you have a load of big partners. We’ve got partners like Scottish and Southern Energy [SSE], Stagecoach and Arriva bus. What they’re doing is offering Ice to all our customers.

If you ring up the SSE call-centre, their gents will offer you Ice.  If you go onto the Stagecoach bus website for example, you’ll see Ice splashed everywhere.

With SSE, you can’t spend the points on your energy bill but you can take those points and spend them at John Lewis or a range of award-winning shops. We’re trying to create a currency where people can spend it with the right retailers

It’s great to have built up such a network, but how did you get the names in the first place?

We have to be so fussy. You can’t just go and work with anybody in the market place, so that makes it more difficult – if we can’t work with XYZ company, we can’t work with their competitor because they might not have the right environmental credentials. 

In the early days, people would have thought “oh this is just too much of a green niche and you’ll have difficulty getting the right strategic partners on board”. But the way we did it was by talking to those partners and explaining what our mission was – we weren’t trying to make people feel guilty, we were trying to incentivise people to do the right thing.

If we could work together with these big companies, we’d have something very powerful.

Who was the first company you convinced?

One of the first was Eurostar, who had Nick Mercer, an old pal from my days in Airmiles, and he got it straight away.

Our first strategic partner was SSE, they had a very interesting decision-making process and it was very quick. They were able to look at it and say “yeah we really like this,” even when it was quite small and we didn’t have many partners. Afterwards we got a snowball effect.

We had some big partners and then more come on board, and that’s how it grows.

We’ve done it quite slowly. We launched at the very end of 2010 in some farm shops to test out the retail proposition and then we started the test with SSE at some point in 2011 and testing with Stagecoach and now we’ve got past the test stage and we’re rolling out.

In your work at Airmiles, you increased profits to £27.2m. How is Ice making profit?

We make our money out of being a loyalty programme, so we make a small commission on the sales we make.

We give away most of that as Ice-points, but we keep a little bit of it ourselves. We’re not charging these businesses sums of money to come into the programme, we’re successful on the basis of how much activity we drive through the programme.

How big is Ice’s activity?

It’s hard to talk about as people have three years to spend [their points]. There is no rush, but if customers don’t spend them, we’ll spend them ourselves. That’s where we’re different from a lot of other loyalty programmes; every single point is going to be spent.

The number of points we’re giving out is increasing by about 10% every week at the moment. There are always millions of points out in circulation but they get spent very quickly. People are waiting until the points are in their account and then spending them the next day. I’ve never seen a loyalty programme work like this, actually.

Are you in a crowded market as an environmental loyalty scheme?

In terms of competition, we consider our competition is any big loyalty programme out there. If people are thinking about where they’re spending their money, they’ll obviously be looking at the schemes. We look at Nectar, Airmiles, Tesco Cashback and all the big schemes as our key competitors.

So what’s the strategy to beat Airmiles and get Ice to the top?

We’re very focused on getting financial services and retail involved. We want Ice to be available wherever anybody shops. We’ve been focused on online and now we want to be in high-street retail, and financial services are a really important part of people’s lives. It’s something you do frequently, so we really need to be there.

My projection over the next five years is I can’t see any reason why it can’t be as big as Airmiles. It could be bigger…! We’re not linked to a major customer or supplier but a customer base the same size as Airmiles is definitely possible.

Thanks for your time Jude and good luck with Ice!

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