top of page


Todd B-W.jpg

Todd Olsen

Activation Partner

The New Shock and Awe: How to win customer loyalty by delighting them when they least expect it

Are you using surprise to your advantage? Some forethought and a bias towards extremely happy customers is all you need.


Quick story: my mom recently had knee replacement surgery, which went very well. She’s been a Stitch Fix customer for about two years now, and had previously asked her stylist to set her up with comfy clothes for the recovery. When she got back from the hospital not only was there a subscription box of comfy, yet stylish couch gear, but also a beautiful mixed bouquet of flowers at the door. The note read: “Here’s wishing you a speedy recovery, from (stylist) and the team at Stitch Fix.” She was blown away, and immediately shared her experience on Facebook. For her, It was an emotional brand touch that led to unwavering loyalty.


In order to achieve the elusive element of surprise, you need three essential ingredients: creativity, randomness, and empowerment. Let’s break these down.


  • Creativity. Brands that want to move into surprise territory need to think creatively. It’s really hard to surprise people. One example is a collaboration between Netflix and Spotify to promote the series Stranger Things. Like most of America I was completely enthralled, and after a few days of binge-watching, I went to Spotify to listen to the playlist (the key to addiction is to come down slowly). I was intrigued when the typical playlist skin shifted to a darker lighting scheme with murky spotlights. Then I was surprised when the Stranger Things upside-down world snow started falling across my screen. It deepened my appreciation (and loyalty) for both Netflix and Spotify.

  • Another example: Waze is already one of the 3-5 apps I would never give up. It’s way better than Apple maps in so many ways. So it surprised me when I learned I could create navigation directions with my own voice! Of course I wanted to record and hear myself giving personalized driving instructions, embedded with fun surprises to my wife like “Pay attention! It looks like you missed the turn!” She just loves that.

  • Randomness. We order a lot of pizza for delivery. A few years back we were on a cheese + prosciutto pizza kick from Pagliacci. Their service is excellent and the pizza is pretty good if you like  thin crust. One Friday after ordering we opened the door to accept and pay for our pizza. I started to hand my cash to the driver. “Nope!” he said, “this one’s on us.” He wouldn’t even accept a tip. What was even more impressive was the signed thank-you card by the team that made the pizza. This happened twice in an 18 month period. I could never recognize a pattern, but probably somewhere between 7-10 orders a free pizza showed up. What made it unique was I never knew when it was going to happen. Would it be the next one? It made me more likely to order from Pagliacci amongst the myriad of pizza delivery options in Seattle.   

Why is randomness important? Two reasons:

  1. Once you recognize a pattern, you start to move from surprise to entitlement. If I know my 10th coffee is always free, or even worse if I have a punch card, then I feel like I am entitled to a well-earned frequency discount. I expect it, and it is no longer surprising, just a discount program. I’m not saying loyalty / discount programs aren’t important (see every airline ever) but not if your intent is surprise.

  2. We innately chase random rewards. There’s a famous study called the “Skinner box” where pigeons were given seed rewards at regular and random intervals. After the seeds stopped coming, the pigeons conditioned to receive regular rewards stopped pecking right away. The pigeons conditioned to receive rewards at random basically never stopped. I’ll let you draw your own human marketing conclusions.

  3. Empowerment. This is probably the hardest of the three. Back to my Stitch Fix example, none of this would have happened if the stylist wasn’t empowered to authorize a gift (which must have cost at least $40) or trained to spot a loyalty moment and elevate it for action. Either way, great job Stitch Fix.

At Starbucks, “Surprise and Delight” was on oft-used customer mantra. It worked best when a barista was able to spot-reward a customer if they were having a less-than-perfect experience, or when they simply brewed up some special coffee and offered it to the customers to try. Eventually store sampling became a food mark-out tactic which made it less special.   

Why surprise matters

At the end of the day, marketers have to work hard to break through the clutter of the digital economy. An immutable law for brand health and sustainable revenue is to keep your current customers. Even better to make them love you so much they will share you with their friends. If properly done, surprise can look a lot like shock and awe.

Aflac Reimagines the Duck

by Allen Adamson

What's the Big Idea?

by Andrew Salzman

Related Thinking

bottom of page