Surprise as a Marketing Tool

As companies increasingly turn to emotion-based marketing to help retain their customers, they frequently employ the element of surprise — such as offering unanticipated awards to members of loyalty programs. But according to a June 2002 working paper, such tactics often don't work as intended. The paper is by Adam Lindgreen, an assistant professor of marketing at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, and Joëlle Vanhamme, an assistant professor of consumer behavior and marketing communication at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

“To Surprise or Not To Surprise Your Customers: The Use of Surprise as a Marketing Tool” conducts a thorough review of the literature on the use of retention-based marketing in different business sectors. It shows that frequent-user programs and loyalty schemes set up by credit card companies, bookstores, auto manufacturers and supermarkets all have a major flaw: They fail to provide long-term strategic advantage because rivals can easily copy them. The literature also suggests, however, that emotion-based marketing offers a competitive advantage because it is almost impossible to copy.

Analyzing the few studies available on the impact of surprise on marketing efficacy, Lindgreen and Vanhamme conclude that “Positive surprise is believed to lead to customer delight — the highest level of customer satisfaction and thought to translate into [higher] customer retention levels.” The use of surprise in retention marketing would then seem an ideal complement.

But surprise marketing can backfire, say the authors, particularly when “the illustrations and/or descriptions [of the benefits] lead customers to build a schema divergent from reality” — that is, when the promised “supersound hi-fi equipment” turns out to be a headphone set for an audio player. A potential problem of a different type occurs when the surprise works too well: Customers update their schema and come to expect the surprise. For example, an airline that upgrades members of its frequent-flier program from economy to business class on a single journey will give those passengers a pleasant surprise, but may cause them to expect an upgrade whenever they fly.

Although research suggests that those problems aren't insuperable and can be mitigated through communication and careful management of customer expectations, the authors say that companies should think hard before embarking on surprise marketing. “Surprise can be an extremely efficient marketing tool,” they state in their paper. “But marketers need to be aware that some situations are more suitable for surprise activities than others.&

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