The Shocking Truth About Surprise-And-Delight Strategy

Exceeding expectations and cementing long-term loyalty is no simple task, as many CMOs and marketing executives have learned. Yet a few best practices stand out—and, dare we say it, you’ll be surprised and delighted that they aren’t necessarily complicated or expensive.

The Shocking Truth About Surprise-And-Delight Strategy

Over the past decade, the phrase “surprise and delight” has emerged at the center of marketing. The idea that it’s smart for a business to introduce experiences that slide the dial from “mundane” to “awesome” makes perfect sense, whether it’s in the form of a promotion or a streamlined way to interact or transact.

Yet exceeding expectations and cementing long-term loyalty is no simple task, as many CMOs and marketing executives have learned. “Surprise and delight typically requires a lot of different things to come together the right way,” said Rick Ducey, managing director at consulting firm BIA/Kelsey.

In fact, amid a growing array of devices, channels, approaches, and data points, surprise and delight is emerging as a complex and elusive equation. Despite no single route to success, a few best practices stand out, including the need to understand customers better than ever and deliver a product, promotion, or service in a highly relevant way. This, in turn, requires marketers to gain a deeper understanding of what creates an emotional connection with a product or brand—rather than simply gauging what people want to buy.

Also of note, in the surprise-and-delight universe, personalization and context aren’t an afterthought, and timing is everything. “The goal is to deliver something that makes a person feel as though they are receiving something of value,” Ducey told

Surprise and delight doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. It might translate into something as basic as a delivering an electronic coupon for a free appetizer when a customer walks past a favorite restaurant or steps inside. Or it might mean automatically upgrading shipping to two days without an extra charge for a holiday, such as Mother’s Day, or providing a free night at a hotel for a great customer—above and beyond a loyalty program. It might also take the form of a handwritten thank-you note or phone call to a long-time loyal customer or introducing a more streamlined way to pay or interact. Uber, for example, makes ordering a car and paying for it a completely seamless experience by tapping the power of the smartphone. There’s zero interface and no friction point.

Beyond The Coupon

Surprise and delight has existed as long as businesses have been around—and companies such as Disney, Apple, Nordstrom, and Amazon have continually found ways to achieve a higher level of loyalty by putting the concept into play through innovative products, services, and features. However, digital technology, including smartphones, beacons, geofencing, and analytics, have introduced new and far more advanced ways to interact. Clouds, mobility, and big-data platforms have created real-time capabilities that take business to an entirely different level.

Emily M. Collins, an analyst at Forrester Research, said that success in this arena starts with a good idea, but it involves technology and execution. “Digital and mobile create opportunities that are still mostly untapped,” she told

A key to success in the surprise-and-delight space is developing an idea that truly stands out. As consumers find themselves assaulted by ads, offers, and boastful claims, it’s important to think beyond the flat earth of self-serving hucksterism. For example, a $5 certificate delivered for a person’s birthday is not surprise and delight; it’s simply a $5 certificate delivered for a person’s birthday. It could require the recipient to fork over $30 or $50 to receive the “gift.” What’s more, if the promotion or free item, such as a coffee, expires immediately after the recipient’s birthday and the customer doesn’t use it, it’s quite likely he or she will view it as something snatched away rather than an unclaimed gift.

In the end, “It may elicit more negative feelings than if you never sent anything,” said Kim Smith, global head of digital services innovation at Adobe (’s parent company).

The best surprise-and-delight moments—and those that generate affinity—are delivered to a person who is not expecting anything and without strings attached, Smith told “It should be viewed as a gift, and it must be something that has a perceived value. It’s the hook, and it’s the icing on the cake,” she said.

This requires a marketer to identify a person’s interests and preferences and ensure that the feature, promotion, or item that’s provided tilts in favor of the customer without landing in the creepy zone. “The focus shouldn’t be on the company; it must be on the customer. It’s a different mind-set than many marketing executives have adopted,” BIA/Kelsey’s Ducey said.

For instance, a restaurateur may recognize a patron through a beacon and smartphone app, and see that the individual often orders a certain appetizer or dessert item. As a result, the system may generate an electronic coupon for a free order delivered to the customer’s smartphone, or a waiter may appear at the table and simply hand over the item “on the house.” Likewise, a grocery store or other retailer may recognize that customers are standing in a long line and push out a $10 coupon to make up for the delay. “The recipient will almost certainly be surprised and delighted,” Smith said.

To be sure, some organizations are tapping digital technology to take the concept to an entirely different level. They’re tying in social media, legacy data, and even beacons to create a digital framework that would have been unimaginable in the past. MasterCard’s “Priceless Surprises,” for instance, rewards customers who post on social media with spontaneous prizes, from concert tickets and backstage meetings with celebrities, such as Justin Timberlake, to VIP tickets, food festivals, and seat upgrades at baseball games. The company said it had surprised 77,790 cardholders by the end of February.

The University of Wisconsin Athletic Department, meanwhile, has used beacons, geofencing, and a smartphone app to take fan interaction to a higher level. For instance, when the football team headed to San Diego for the Holiday Bowl in December 2015, it used beacons and geofencing to deliver a custom message to about 1,500 travelers as they left Madison and landed in San Diego. At the team’s official hotel site, they were also directed to various activities during game week and delivered videos and other content. The athletic department uses the same technology to hold scavenger hunts and push out promotions and coupons for concession stands.

Ben Fraser, director of external engagement at the University of Wisconsin Athletic Department, described the system “as a way to enhance their experience.” It will continue to look for ways to surprise and delight, he said.

Three points matter most when devising a surprise-and-delight strategy and building the technology framework to support an initiative, Adobe’s Smith said. The action a business takes or does must actually produce a surprise; a recipient must view something as an honest gift or feature rather than something entirely opportunistic for the business; and the item or thing must be simple and easy to use or claim. “Every organization should be thinking about surprise and delight. It’s a philosophy that should extend beyond marketing and into the entire business,” she said.

Shaping A New Experience

The end goal for surprise and delight shouldn’t be to collect positive reviews on a Web page or land a string of gushing tweets—though these are certainly nice outcomes. It also shouldn’t be limited to an occasional moment of bliss for a customer. It’s all about constructing a more holistic framework for affinity and loyalty by solving problems, improving interactions, and making a customer feel truly special and appreciated.

In fact, Nandini Nayak, managing director of design strategy at Fjord, the interactive digital design and innovation arm of Accenture, said she believes that “surprise and delight may not be the best aspiration for a business.” Rather, it’s more about creating special moments within an overall context of creating strong love for a brand. “There must be an emotional connection to how the experience is delivered to achieve lasting results,” she told

Nayak noted that consumer expectations are changing rapidly and radically due to digitalization. As a result, Fjord developed The Love Index, which focuses on five primary marketing attributes (fun, relevant, engaging, social, helpful) that systematically explain why people love specific experiences. Experiences should revolve around these dimensions, Nayak said. This may translate into better design elements, including a mobile-first approach or a near-zero interface or transaction process (again, think Uber or Open Table).

“People do not want to be marketed to, and they are becoming less patient with interruptive and pushy advertising and marketing. It’s about providing the right thing at the right moment,” she explained.

In fact, this might ultimately lead a business outside the boundaries of traditional marketing and into a more multidimensional place. In this new order of marketing, it’s all about timing, details, consistency, and understanding the nuances of human relationships. The days of presenting a brand to consumers in a monolithic and generic way are fading. “People expect to be treated as individuals, and when they receive this type of treatment, they feel a deeper sense of attachment to a company or brand,” Nayak said.

Is it possible for a business to set consumer expectations too high? Ducey and other experts answered with a definitive “yes.” The fundamental problem is that “if you create an expectation and cannot deliver on it consistently, or if you condition customers to expect too much, they may become upset and even disenfranchised with the company or brand when they don’t get what they want,” Ducey said.

In the end, it’s critical to avoid an entitlement mentality yet ensure that customers get exactly what they are entitled to during a transaction or interaction. “In some cases, surprise and delight is really nothing more than delivering on your promises and meeting expectations on a consistent basis,” Ducey added.

Regardless of the exact approach, Smith said, it is important to invest in the right areas, look for partnerships and alliances that introduce value, and, ultimately, map business processes and interactions to generate greater value for the consumer. “In today’s world, marketers must learn how to be humble and not focus all their energy on an epic win,” she said. “[In some cases], it’s more important to focus on epic fails and understand things like why shopping carts wind up abandoned and people become frustrated with a business. These represent opportunities to introduce a product, service, feature, or promotion that truly surprises and delights a consumer.”