The evolution of staff motivation programmes

happy staffThe academic work of the early and mid 20th century, which was originally undertaken to explain everyday human behaviour, was enthusiastically adopted by the business community, particularly in the US, resulting in a rapid development of ‘incentive schemes’ which could be used by businesses, initially to increase their sales or distribution.

The earliest examples come from the archives of Maritz and Schoeneckers (now BI) in the form of merchandise catalogues, post 1945. American GIs were returning home from the war, getting married and setting up home. Industry was booming, producing for the first time good quality, low cost household goods and appliances. The automotive industry was particularly buoyant. In order to sell more cars more quickly to consumers, merchandise catalogues were created for the salespeople to ‘incentivise’ higher levels of sales. It is no coincidence that virtually all of the early pioneers of the motivation industry were based in and around US car plants. Merchandise catalogues were already a common feature of everyday life in the US where distances between towns and cities prohibited frequent shopping trips. It was therefore a relatively simple matter to adapt the artwork to remove the prices and replace them with points or credit values together with a set of incentive rules.

During the 1960s individual travel and group (incentive) travel were added to the growing range of reward options for participants as living standards improved and the cost of leisure travel came down. Page & Moy, for example, organised a reward event in Monte Carlo for Shell Oil to coincide with the Grand Prix in the mid-1960s that eventually grew into a worldwide series of Grand Prix-related incentive events and eventually incentive travel events to other destinations as well.

Over the next 20 years incentive travel specialists appeared offering more and more exotic destinations to clients who increasingly sought to go one better than their competitors in order to retain market share or their own high-fliers. At the same time retailers had recognised that their own store cards, many originally conceived to make the buying of wedding gifts easier, could be adapted in the form of paper vouchers and offered to businesses as a reward medium for business-to-business incentives. Corporate hospitality providers were also aware that providing tickets to famous sporting events could also be packaged as ‘incentives’.

In the wake of this competition for rewards, merchandise catalogues began to lose their way as the obvious choice for incentive planners to distribute incentives. Retail vouchers were more convenient and the winner took on the problem of redemption by visiting the retail outlet in person to claim their reward. ‘Universal’ vouchers such as Bonusbonds and more latterly Capital Bonds became very popular as one voucher could be redeemed in a number of different outlets. The 1990’s also saw the introduction of stored value cards, providing increased flexibility and choice to award recipients.

By the end of the 1990s there were some 40-50 specialist incentive agencies in the UK, offering a mixture of campaign planning, reward options and results administration, employing some 2,000 people. Many of them had a travel industry or marketing background and were comfortable providing consultancy advice on all aspects of incentive campaigns and campaign planning, in a similar way to the advertising and sales promotion industries.

Today, if you include voucher suppliers, hoteliers, airlines, cruise ships, creative agencies, specialist ‘experience’ providers, software designers and travel agencies the extended family of all those in the incentives or motivation industry is wide and far-reaching. With the advent of the internet and in  particular online software to ease the administration of tracking performance and redeeming rewards, many smaller organisations now have access to motivation programmes that used to be the preserve of the big plcs and multi-nationals. In theory, any organisation with around 50 people or more could cost effectively operate a motivation programme as the administration costs have fallen so dramatically. The industry has come of age. Now it needs to become more professional.


institute of promotional marketingContent for this blog has been provided courtesy of the IPM and is incorporated into the IPM Diploma in Motivation. To find out more about the diploma or to enrol click here.


John Sylvester

John is responsible for the motivation division of p&mm ltd and a Director on the board of the IPM. Specialising in developing, implementing and directing many large scale staff motivation, recognition and employee communications programmes.

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