I’ve been in the business over 25 years, and in that time I’ve seen no overall improvement in the “brand” of the incentive industry. Despite the exceptional efforts of the Incentive Research Foundation to create excellent research and despite the efforts of the Incentive Marketing Association and Recognition Professionals International to promote high standards through their certification programs, few college students set out to create a career incentives or recognition, and to this day when I tell businesspeople I run a media business in the incentive and recognition industry, most give me a quizzical look.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise. You’ll rarely see the general media talk about the field, and if they do it’s often with a cynical eye. Meanwhile, young talent eagerly pursues opportunities in other areas of engagement, mobile, communications, gamification, technology, content marketing, event marketing, etc. Fortunately, none of the above needs to change for the field to thrive. Many people make a very good living selling incentive programs, with many companies of all sizes benefiting from their services.

Who is hurt most by this? Ironically, it’s the corporations that pay for these programs. Their lack of knowledge and respect for this field undoubtedly explains why well under half of incentive programs have any formal measures in place at all, and why so many fail or cause unintended consequences the companies aren’t even aware of. I would guess that half of the corporate planners I talk to seeking to run an incentive program are in fact simply looking for a simple “do this, get that” gimmick that involves little or no planning. (See 8 Questions to Answer Before Risking Failure). It’s almost unheard of for clients to be willing to pay consulting fees for incentive program design, but they think nothing of paying hundreds of dollars an hour for management consultants in almost every other area of business. Not surprising that the No. 1 gripe of most incentive company owners is the lack of respect they get from top management.

It has gotten to the point that when corporate planners call me for assistance with a program, I ask them outright if they are simply seeking a do this, get that solution, or are they willing to take a little time to build a program with a clear return-on-investment. They will always say the latter, but in actual fact more than half of the time they end up buying a quick-fix prize, clever card platform, or some other flashy concept whose results in the end never even get measured. Some will actually say something to the effect of: “We don’t have time to use any formal processes. We want to do something now that will move the needle.” As a result, what they don’t see is the damage done to their credibility among the very people they were trying to engage when these programs fizzle or cause unintended consequences, so much so that it becomes increasingly difficult to engage people in anything going forward.

Ironically, I suspect it will be easier to tackle this more granular problem than the overall branding challenge for the field. Why? Because the industry’s organizations are already providing all of the tools necessary for solution providers to educate their clients on the difference between basic gimmicks that only hurt the brand of the industry and the results they’ll achieve if they’re disciplined enough to build their programs properly. The Incentive Research Foundation provides a plethora of information that our entire industry should be using to educate customers; the Incentive Marketing Association and Recognition Professionals International have formal certification programs that every serious practitioner should undertake; and for those interested in the overall field of engagement, the Enterprise Engagement Alliance has a comprehensive education and certification program. While only a small percentage participate in the certification programs, the industry actively attends the education programs of these and other organizations.

Obviously, the 60% or more of those companies that don’t measure the results of their programs are easily finding providers of prizes and awards who are happy to sell the client whatever shiny object it wants without insisting on use of best practices and return-on-investment measurement, not recognizing the damage being done to the client, to themselves over the long run, and to the very brand of our industry. This branding problem is so acute that corporate practitioners don’t attend most of the educational events in the rewards and recognition field, and some who I’ve talked to said they felt uncomfortable when they did. “I don’t like being called a buyer,” said one corporate executive to me at the recent Rewards & Recognition Expo. “We plan strategies to engage our employees.”

It’s a bad sign that an industry as old as this – one that has managed to do so much to support research, best practices and education – has seen so little change in its reputation over the years. It’s a major challenge for the field. The battle to be won in this generation is at the front lines, where solution providers aren’t afraid to stand up to clients and push back when they’re about to shoot themselves in the foot with a less-than-adequate program in the hope that no one will measure the results anyway.

The industry’s brand will finally change where it counts – in the halls of business management – when the majority of our solution providers have the courage to walk away from clients who don’t take these programs seriously and undervalue what we bring to the table.

Written by Bruce Bolger