“Surprise and delight” – how can brands get it right?

Brandworkz chief executive Jens Lundgaard looks at brands that have successfully embraced the idea of delivering the unexpected.

Waterstones drops letters to support the
Waterstones drops letters to support an NHS blood donation campaign

We love the unexpected. This is especially true these days where the web and smartphones have largely eradicated the element of surprise and adventure from most parts of our life.

More and more brands are using this to their advantage and are running campaigns built around creating genuine surprise.

We saw this in last month’s “missing type” campaign which saw well-known shops and brands remove the letters A, O and B (the main blood-type letters) from their logos in a bid to get more people to donate blood on behalf of the NHS – and in the process cleverly gain some interest and goodwill themselves. The Waterstones Trafalgar Square store, Odeon’s Leicester Square branch, the Daily Mirror, beer brand London Pride and Santander all took part in the National Blood Week campaign. Even the Downing Street sign lost its O.

“Brands can give us something else to talk about”

Why do we like this so much? It’s unexpected, it’s clever, it makes you ask questions if you don’t know the back-story, it gives us something else to talk about and it relates to real-life issues. Perhaps we also like the missing type campaign because, in adulterating their precious logos, the brands are demonstrating that sometimes there are more important issues and deflecting attention towards something bigger.

Heinz and Marmite de-brand for Selfridges
Heinz and Marmite de-brand for Selfridges

The very brand-aware Selfridges rocked and even mocked its own world in its debranded concept store back in January 2013, in which it stripped iconic products of their labels. Marmite, Heinz Tomato Ketchup and Baked Beans sat alongside their cosmetic and fashion counterparts from Clinique, Armani and Levi’s. It was at once an ironic take on brand and a triumphing of it, with many of the products still identifiable and desirable, and on sale as limited editions. Most of all, though, it stopped us in our tracks and made us look, wonder and even smile a little.

What has become known as the “surprise and delight” approach is partly about the joy of giving (and receiving), and a freebie goes a long way. Waitrose’s free coffee for My Waitrose card-holders definitely went down well, for instance, especially before the free newspaper was siphoned off to protect profits. But really, it’s about humour and entertainment and real life and memory and other experiences that can get lost in commerce.

“Emotional connection is the holy grail for brands”

At the same time though, this kind of surprise builds emotional connection – and that’s the holy grail for brand-building.

Mastercard has pitched this perfectly with its ongoing “Priceless Surprises” campaign, which rewards unsuspecting card users with gig tickets or gifts out of the blue and sometimes gives them the ultimate surprise by actually hooking them up with their favourite band or artist.

Take Marks and Spencers’ “shwopping” initiative of 2013, which urged customers to bring in unwanted clothes and saw half a million garments recycled in six weeks. Or Kleenex in 2011, which monitored people’s Facebook status and courier-delivered get-better kits to those who reported themselves unwell. Creepy? Maybe. Memorable? Definitely. Almost every person who received a pack posted a photo of it on their Facebook page.

“Meeting expectations is now entry-level for brands”

Again, Coke treated students across the world in 2011 with university vending machines dispensing multiple free bottles of the drink, followed by a sequence of baguettes, muffins with lit candles, fresh cut flowers and then a pair of real human hands offering up other gifts. It wasn’t so much about the gifts as the extraordinary way they reached people.

Of course, Coca Cola has effectively been doing “surprise and delight” in a more pragmatic way to children and Coke-addicts for decades with millions – if not billions – of free, branded merchandising goods like footballs, frisbees, yo-yos etc. I’ve got to take my hat off to their latest merchandising campaign – a million selfie sticks. As much as I am personally bemused by their popularity, clearly lots of people use them, and Coke will now literally become part of a million people’s most memorable life moments. Talk about emotional connection!

It wasn’t always this way. In the past we desired brands that were reliable, predictable and consistently met our expectations, again and again. These things have now largely become the entry ticket – we expect them, and competition means that brands which don’t deliver over and above will struggle.

Discover more:

• Why Waterstones, Odeon and 10 Downing Street are dropping letters

• No Logo – the Selfridges de-branding exercise

• Quiet brands to shout about at Selfridges


Jens Lundgaard is founder and chief executive of Brandworkz.

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