Chris Ford: Predictions for 2021 in the world of payments and rewards

Industry trends for 2021

Chris Ford, Senior Director, Incentives, looks back on the predictions he made for 2020, and casts new thoughts on what 2021 will bring. 

“In December 2019, I wrote a blog outlining my 2020 predictions for how upcoming trends within the industry and the wider world would impact our approach at Blackhawk Network. Little did I know at the time quite how far these six focus points would develop, and the cause from which they’d exponentially grow! 

I focused my previous blog on these six key points that we’d seen developing at pace in 2019: 

  • Payment regulations and how they would impact the ways in which people pay 
  • Allowing choice-based reward and recognition 
  • The impact of digitisation  
  • The absolute need for personalisation 
  • Location-based engagement 
  • Technology that creates scale, resilience and flexibility  

At the time of writing, no-one could have predicted the sheer impact that Covid-19 would have on life as we knew it. On 23rd March (the day the UK went into lockdown) everything changed and these six areas of focus at Blackhawk took on completely new meaning: 

How people pay changed, possibly for ever  

Overnight, digital payment became the preferred method of exchanging funds. Cash practically went out the window, with many retail outlets requesting customers to use card wherever possible.  

We’ve seen marked innovation around the actual payment vehicles that were already in existence. Supported by payment regulation changes such as an increase in the amount you can spend on a contactless payment, coupled with the open banking phenomenon; wallets, apps and the resurgence of QR codes are just a few examples.  

At Blackhawk Network, we launched a variety of new payment solutions to help our clients and their customers adapt to this change. These products that were already in the pipeline were reprioritised and successfully brought to market throughout the year: 

  • Virtual prepaid cards 
  • One4all digital multi-store gift-cards 
  • New e-codes from high street brands that could be sent and redeemed online 
  • Select Essentials – focused on e-codes for food and clothing 
  • LoadIt, ScanIt and SpendIt payment applications   

What people desired changed 

No longer was it about the luxury item – suddenly, people required value to spend on standard essentials. ‘Panic buying’ ensued, causing stockpiling behaviour and shortages of basic items. 

As we approached Christmas, our recent research indicated that gift-giving would focus heavily on the needs of our friends and family, rather than the traditional ‘wish-list’ items. 

As a result, it has become even harder to second-guess what someone desires or needs, so our Blackhawk Network choice-based approach has really taken off. We’re of the belief that every recipient of a reward, recognition, gesture or gift should be able to choose how they enjoy the value, rather than being limited to a single brand or product. Gift cards, eGifts and eCodes on the other hand, allow you to give value that guarantees satisfaction and flexibility – whether that is how or where the product is spent.  

How people used the online world changed 

Whether shopping for groceries, streaming entertainment content, accessing video conferencing services or simply consuming information to keep informed - our world has become truly digital. 

For us, that has meant standing up our own digital solutions in record time and onboarding hundreds of new brands onto our platforms. We successfully launched eGifts on Gift Card Store for Business to complement our catalogue of physical gift cards and our own multi-store offerings. Our aim is to provide access to a brand in every retail category, that someone could require digitally, in one singular online place.  

People started leaving a data trail through their online activities 

As more of us get online, the amount of knowledge now available to brands to personalise the engagement with their customers is astonishing.  

Whereas 30% of our interactions on average would have been online pre-COVID, today 70% of our interactions with brands are predominantly online (thank goodness for the introduction of GDPR and the strict controls over how this information can be used!) and the companies that have flourished are the ones that have created meaningful, and importantly, helpful personalisation. 

People stayed home 

Of course, being restricted on where we can go and what we can do has limited the rapid developments in location-based rewarding. It’s not gone away at all - the world just needs to return to an element of normality to make the leap forward that is expected for this concept.  

The SaaS technological revolution has been relentless 

More companies have started to consolidate services, systems and processes to provide more environments where people can self-serve. Just imagine what your life would be like if platforms like ZOOM had not stepped up to provide a seamless mechanism to engage family, friends and colleagues in an entirely self-serve fashion. 

At Blackhawk Network, we’ve spent millions augmenting our services and solutions to focus on the attributes of self-serve platforms. Have a look at our latest release, brand new gaming brand, Boost.  

…So, what do I think 2021 will be like? And where will we focus our time and efforts in the world of Blackhawk Network? 

We will all try different ways to pay 

Payment Solutions (once talked about as Emerging Payment Services) will become commonplace in the way that people choose to spend and receive value. We will continue to be at the forefront of this revolution and will release new and innovative ways to enable people to receive, send and spend value. 

‘Value/Fund Disbursement’ is now well established, providing new and efficient methods for delivering grants 

Whether its recognising, rewarding, awarding or providing lifesaving funds to people in need, Blackhawk Network will continue to deliver this value using a multitude of products, services and solutions.  

We’re glad to have been able to help in 2020, where we have globally disbursed $250m+ in value to vulnerable parties. In the UK, we’re privileged to be supporting councils with their winter grant delivery and assisting organisations such as the Licensed Trade Charity to reach more beneficiaries than ever before. 

For more insight on how we can help in this area, check out our fund disbursement page

Payment vehicles will become a marketeer’s dream  

Being able to move value (digitally or physically) to a person in a branded manner, personalised and entirely based on choice is an ambition we have had for many years. The change in lifestyle due to Covid-19 has accelerated this need, and we are working tirelessly to provide marketing teams with the ability to extend their brand onto the payment vehicle itself, being part of the payment experience both in-store and online.  

The fight to maintain loyalty will intensify 

We’ve all sat in meetings where we’ve tried to second-guess what our employees or customers really want. Generational data, demographic data and historic transactional trends will never truly deliver you the answer to what someone needs or desires, especially in the post COVID world.  

Instead, Blackhawk Network have stood up a range of initiatives that allow companies to switch points and offers into choice-based digital value. Whether it’s a digital Select code that allows the recipient to swap the value into what they need; a virtual prepaid card that allows the user to spend anywhere online; or whether it’s a One4all digital gift card that allows the individual to spend at 130+ retailers. Our firm belief is that the future of brand loyalty will need to be driven by the concept of choice-based value disbursement, using digital processing rails.  

Security, resilience and capacity vs agility, flexibility and innovation  

Big companies often come with all the security, resilience and capacity that helps to drive peoples’ trust; however, they are often challenged by the concept of being agile, flexible and innovative. We all understand the concept of turning an oil tanker versus a speed boat.  

At Blackhawk Network we are in an incredibly fortunate position of continually delivering innovation in a flexible and market-driven manner, but to do this based on the world’s very largest value disbursement platforms. In 2021 we will globalise our marketplace technology, enabling businesses and partners of all shapes and sizes to take advantage of our highly regulated, resilient and compliant ecosystems for value disbursement. Our clients, our partners and our internal teams will layer on more and more innovation, driven by our continually changing world.  

Wellbeing, mindfulness and doing good 

2021 will be a year for all of us to reset. What may have been important in 2019 will unlikely be the case in 2021. Blackhawk Network will continue to release services, products and solutions that will support a huge array of people with their mental and physical wellbeing. 

Cyclescheme has seen huge growth throughout 2020, Techscheme continues to flourish, Rewards and Recognition linked to health and wellness are on the rise, and value disbursement to the less fortunate in society has become a vital initiative which has saved lives. Look out for our new Employee Benefits Choice portal in the coming weeks… 

In conclusion it is safe to say that Blackhawk Network, as with every other business, has needed to evolve around a ‘new normal’.  

Importantly for us, what we set-out to achieve when we first discussed the concept of global value disbursement and choice-based offerings, continues to resonate - albeit now very much from the mindset of digital and online, and for reasons we could never have guessed.  

We’re hugely proud of our achievements in 2020 and are excited to carry out our plans for 2021 developments and launches, as we continue to innovate in the world of value disbursement using branded payment solutions.”  


Chris Ford is our Senior Director, Incentives. He is responsible for our future growth as a business in the UK and leads a highly skilled team into another year of change and transformation.  

Having worked in the industry for more than 20 years, Chris is a key member of the business who regularly shares valuable insight into the future of value disbursement. He’s recently featured on multiple panels and provided his thoughts in leading publications across the UK.