Since its launch in 2014, rewards and discovery platform ShopBack has been steadily building out its partnership network as part of its goal to help shoppers in Southeast Asia “shop smarter”. Chief Commercial Officer Candice Ong speaks to WARC about effective partnerships and growth ambitions.

This article is part of a Spotlight series on how brands in Southeast Asia can develop effective marketing partnerships for growth. Read more

Key insights

  • Partnerships for ShopBack are not a zero-sum game but about enlarging the size of pie and being open to exploring new things.
  • Brands unfamiliar with local nuances and needs partner ShopBack to build awareness and take advantage of big shopping seasons.
  • Two important partnerships for ShopBack were with Visa at the start, and Zalora, which opened the door for future merchant partnerships.
WARC: Partnerships are at the core of what ShopBack does as a business – how would you describe the company’s guiding philosophy when it comes to negotiating mutually beneficial partnerships?

The guiding philosophy for us would be around how we tap on each other’s core competencies or strengths in leveraging each other’s abilities to drive greater outcomes.

We have been very successful in forming strategic partnerships with banks and telcos as this was also an area of focus for them to understand how they can better find value for members on their platforms, with respect to either being telco subscribers or in terms of being credit card subscribers. They are always trying to find value for their members as well.

We are shifting the thought process in terms of partnerships away from a zero-sum game, as we believe that it’s always about enlarging the size of pie and being open to exploring things beyond the initial scope of discussion.

For example, in Singapore, one of the key partnerships we launched last year – in tandem with a new business unit that we launched – was a partnership with Citi. Citibank was our first ever bank partner that supported our new vouchers vertical with ShopFest 2020 last year. Their goal was to drive revenue and increase market share in Singapore. Our goal is to find a trusted partner with a great brand name to try to drive sales. On our side, we are giving a higher benefit to Citi members and for Citi, it is more on the distribution front.

What was great was that during the ShopFest period from September to December, we drove over 100% month-on-month growth of voucher revenue on average for Citi. They were also our exclusive bank during this period. I believe this was a mutually win-win outcome for both players.

Also, in terms of approaching partnerships, we have been more targeted in terms of what our customer segment is. Citi was targeted more towards a premium set of customers but similarly, we were exploring possibilities in older demography as well as expat demography and focusing on the sports category.

Last year, we also partnered with La Liga, the Spanish professional football league, to drive branding awareness for them as well as on our site to drive better awareness with the expat community in the sporting scene. On their front, they committed to join our marketing activities. They also created content for social media that we could use. On our side, we also amplified La Liga awareness. With our users, what they really engaged with were the giveaways that La Liga also sponsored.

WARC: Do share how ShopBack has expanded out into new audience segments and verticals via partnerships.

When the company started, the focus was very much around general e-commerce. But we recognised that we serve our customers across a variety of categories and lifestyle needs, so we proceeded to expand in the travel vertical.

The focus was on working with tourism boards across the region, especially Malaysia and Thailand, to try to drive greater awareness of domestic travel in those countries.

Of course, in 2020 with the COVID situation, it was more limited but in 2019 and before, we saw decent success in trying to drive domestic travel. In some cases, this was also focused on the regional level. For bigger countries like Thailand, we were given budgets from campaigns and upsized cashbacks to try and promote travel between different regions.

Candice Ong, Chief Commercial Officer, ShopBack

WARC: Can you share more about ShopFest? How did it evolve and do you have plans in the coming months or years to do more beyond such activities?

We first started in 2018. It was then called ShopBack ShopFest but over time, we just went with ShopFest. During this period, which was September to December, organically, the industry has several peak days starting with 9/9, which is largely anchored by Shopee, then 10/10, largely anchored by Qoo10, and 11/11 that was started by Taobao.

What we sought to do was to build awareness for these peak days, but also organise those peak days for consumers, so they know which anchor brand to go to for specific occasions and days. This is less confusing for users and they can identify a period with a marquee name.

What we also wanted to do was to make sure that this helped our brand establish a more visible footprint. ShopFest isn’t a Singapore event, it’s really nine markets. The peak days might differ a bit depending on what the local country needs.

For example, in Australia, 11/11 isn’t a shopping day because it has some sensitivity towards Australia’s history. Whereas in some markets, events like Black Friday are more significant than, say, in a market like Thailand.

ShopFest also serves as a helpful umbrella for brands that might not be familiar with the local nuances and needs. They partner with us and we work with them on how they can best take advantage of big shopping seasons, which are very much cultivated by seasonality due to bonuses, Christmas and shopping festivals that some of the biggest players are already doing.

Previously, ShopFest was marketplace-driven but now we are also seeing travel companies being much more involved in trying to drive transactions during ShopFest. Of course, in 2020, it was a bit more muted but in prior years, we had OTAs very interested in participating.

WARC: Can you share how ShopBack navigated 2020 with its network of partners?

For 2020, a lot of offline businesses shifted focus to the online space. In Q2 itself, we managed to onboard around 1,000 new brands. It was also in line with the brands or merchant focus because they needed to make sure they amplify their online awareness.

A lot of businesses were also more cost-efficient or cost-conscious and outcome-focused during this time, due to the level of uncertainty in the market and tightened purse strings. What helped them was our business charges that were on a cost per transaction basis. They understood the kind of outcomes they could drive, as opposed to by an app where you might not be sure of the outcomes or spends you render.

In terms of increased cost-consciousness, it was also beneficial for us; in terms of merchants or partners, being more particular about the effectiveness of their marketing spends.

The general mindset shifting towards prudence was also helpful in terms of amplifying effectiveness of our business.

WARC: How did Shopback market itself during that time?

We had to do minimal tweaks but what we did differently was being much more aggressive in reaching out to longer-tail partners to try to add value to the community and help businesses get online and provide them a cost-effective marketing channel for reaching out to customers.

Travel was impacted but we also looked to amplify awareness of such possible cases in the industry. Because one day, travel will return, maybe in a different form. In the meantime, individuals and customers are looking out for experiences they can enjoy. It’s about staying relevant during this time even though there is a gap in international travel.

WARC: Did you see a significant spike in consumers coming on to the ShopBack app during this time?

We saw an increase in specific categories such as health and beauty, but more towards health. In terms of beauty, it shifted from cosmetics to regular skincare. We do see some changes in behaviour due to more work-from-home scenarios and I believe online overall has increased in its share for retail. But because of increased prudence from consumer’s point of view, net retail in 2020 did not do so well.

WARC: Are there any interesting new categories that have come up on the ShopBack partnership radar?

With the advent of COVID-19 and everybody working from home, digital goods were definitely a key area of growth for us. I was surprised to see how much people were focusing on antivirus software. The part that was not so surprising was perhaps online courses like Coursera or Udemy.

With digital goods, we saw an uptick that also prompted us to cultivate a category of vouchers, a mix of gift cards and promotion-type vouchers saleable with credit value across Singapore and Australia with respect to ShopGo in terms of voucher sales, as opposed to F&B dine-in that also has been an area of growth for us. But that was not so surprising. The surprising part was software-related sales.

WARC: Now that we are into 2021, have conversations with your partners shifted in terms of priorities?

In 2020, when it was highly ambiguous regarding how things would evolve, partners were a lot more risk-averse. As the pandemic progressed, brands or partners were less inclined to take more risk in terms of their marketing and advertising campaigns and budgets.

During COVID-19, brands were very focused on watertight partnerships. I think that will ease up in 2021. This could mean that they shift back a little bit towards brand building campaigns versus being very insistent on quantifiable campaigns.

WARC: When ShopBack first launched, the notion of a cashback platform was quite new to the market. How have you leveraged your partnerships to educate and market the platform?

Initially, the business model was not very familiar with most users in this region. So partnering with established names was a key focus area for us. In 2014, a partnership that was helpful in establishing trust was Visa. It helped ShopBack get off the ground and pave the way for future partnerships with big names.

Similarly, for ShopFest. There was a year that we partnered with Singapore’s Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA). To seek broader trust and awareness and to establish an association, partnering with governments, especially for travel sites, was helpful to establish trust. Because in terms of travel, purchases can be sizable. So in markets like Malaysia and Thailand, it is helpful to have the government stamp or government partnership to let consumers understand that we are a platform that can be trusted.

Similarly, when ShopBack Go was first launched, it was key to have key anchor marquee brands such as Paradise, Guardian, Subway as the business rolled out (ShopBack Go lets you earn Cashback and Rewards when you spend at physical or offline places). This enables both a strong offering, with brand names that are trusted by consumers.

WARC: Please highlight any memorable or game changing partnerships in the company’s history.

The partnership that really stuck for the founders was Visa in 2014. In fact, when ShopBack was producing a video with IMDA, we deliberately chose to feature Visa in one of the scenes. That was an important partnership that got things started. Similarly, on the merchant front, the key merchant that helped kickstart the business for other future merchant partnerships was Zalora. That enabled greater confidence in a platform for us to partner with brands on the marketing side as well as on the merchant front.

For me personally, the partnership that stuck was the tourism partnerships in other markets, especially our ongoing partnership with Thai Tourism Authority. We are constantly working together and communicating closely about how to drive travel in different parts of Thailand.

Tourism partnerships are crucial for us to establish trust in a category where the investment from the consumer side will be particularly high.

WARC: In terms of your marketing partnership strategy or priorities for ShopBack, what are your priorities for the rest of 2021?

Different countries have their identified key segments. In terms of finding partners, it can be especially helpful for driving awareness and trust towards that key segment that the regions are focused on.

Another partnership we are looking to go deeper into is a big player entering the market – TikTok. We find the video content format to be increasingly relevant towards users. The format’s different level of engagement is a given with TikTok – it is their main premise, key competency and strength. I am personally looking at ways to deepen partnership opportunities with such platforms.

WARC: What advice would you offer to brand marketers looking at marketing partnerships to grow?

All partnerships need to be approached from a win-win perspective with longevity, not viewed as a one-time transactional interaction but a more infinite game. If we believe that the other business is here to stay, there are opportunities in the long run.

I would recommend that before entering a meeting, the team spends time to research, brainstorm and map out objectives for both brands, even thinking for the other party about the possible objectives and solutions.

With respect to some of these meetings, it is ideal to go with proposed solutions that can meet neutral objectives rather than go in and brainstorm, which may be inefficient use of time.