May 16, 2016

Surprise, a powerful marketing tool

In the mess of marketers vying for the customer's attention, it's the surprising ones that will stick.

It's a crowded airport on the day of Christmas. Couples holding hands, children clinging to stuffed toys and mothers cradling kids—all are waiting for their luggage at belt number 8. Suddenly, a siren goes off. Is this some kind of emergency alarm?

That's the first thought crossing people's minds, and then, a line of gift-packs comes trailing down the belt with names neatly posted on them. People are elated seeing their Christmas wishes coming true. The packs have things they had asked from Santa. It's a special Christmas.

Now before you get swept in the emotions, let me reveal—this is not a story but a “real miracle” campaign that WestJet Airlines ran in 2013. The video got 315,000 views within 24 hours—and as on date of writing this article, the views had touched 44,849,072 and the number of subscribers to more than 56,000. WestJet earned the much-required goodwill and awareness, through a well-planned “surprise.”

The whole point of narrating this story is to bring home the point that “the unexpected and improbable is what sticks to memory”. In the mess of marketers vying for a customer's attention, it's the surprising ones that will stick. Therefore, while most marketers are winning by making things easy and predictable for us—Google Maps by letting us know the right directions and traffic conditions; Zomato by sharing restaurant reviews with us; e-tailers by sharing 'similar products' and 'featured recommendations'—a well-packed surprise can create the 'wow' factor that remains with us for long.

Surprisologist Tania Luna defines surprise as “the neuropsychological equivalent of a pause button. It makes us stop what we're doing, hijacks our attention, and forces us to pay attention. It also intensifies our emotions by about 400%.”

In fact, one of the great advantages to surprise is that it creates a memorable experience.

This is perhaps why an 'arranged' marriage brings with it so many emotions. Your attention is hijacked as you experience the other person's company, choices and thoughts, and you spend a good number of days exploring the new relationship.

This is why Apple keeps so much secrecy around its products launches and deals.

This is why Google comes out with a new doodle nearly every day and has several 'beta' product versions running to keep up the 'newness' around the brand.

So while routine and processes are good, we need to think 'out of the box' every now and then, to hijack the attention of the customers—whether to gain new customers, retain loyal ones or just create brand awareness.

But there is one caution: Surprise soon becomes routine and a basic requirement; just as in the case of 'surprise coupons' we get on shopping for a particular amount. So marketers need to continuously innovate the 'unexpected and improbable.'

This article was first published in The Financial Express at

Author: Sonali Wasan - Manager, SocialEdge, Analytics & Research