Over the years, gift cards have become a staple for most retailers. People love giving them, getting them and using them. They have become more and more customized and utilized…as incentives, bonus gifts and marketing tools.But, is your gift card program working as hard as it can for you? What does it say about your brand? Does it say… “Let me buy you lunch? You’re funny! Or dude…wake up, and get some coffee?”

And, what if you give cash, what does that say? Basically, it says you didn’t shop. So, with this in mind, what can your gift card do to say “I’m better than cash,” at time of purchase, at time of giving and at time of use? As a retailer, you need to focus on these three key transactions to make sure you are getting the most return on your gift card program.

At the time of purchase the gift card marketplace is a crowded environment. A shopper spends an average of 30 seconds there, finding that right card. Those 30 seconds are valuable time for you to make an impression and rise above the clutter. Your gift cards are mini billboards. Not novels. They must make a play on emotion and compete on simplicity.

At the time of giving, a simple yet emotional connection comes into play here as well. An effective gift card carries a clear message about its benefits and the relationship between the giver and the receiver. When giving a crisp $20 bill, the receiver gets the message that the giver cares…but only $20 worth. When someone gives a gift card, the receiver should feel, “This is better than cash, because the person who gave this to me actually thought about me and knows what I like.”At the time of use, this is the time to tell your deeper story.

To work your brand into the experience of using that gift card. When you do that, you build brand equity, brand loyalty and grow your customer base.You can stand out from the sea of plastic with a smart yet simple gift card program.

Just remember these four essential guidelines:

Win on Usefulness. Make it better and easier to use than cash.

Win on Message. Communicate more efficiently and succinctly, at the right times.

Win on Design. Make your designs speak to the recipient, invoking the giver’s thoughtfulness.

Win on Brand. The best gift card is a gift card that isn’t just a gift, it’s a brand experience.