Want deeper member engagement? Implement surprise and delight initiatives into your loyalty program.
30 April 2023
Max Savransky

Customer delight is a powerful technique for driving deeper member engagement. Psychological studies suggest that when a customer’s expectations are met, they will be satisfied and when a customer’s expectations are exceeded, they will be slightly more satisfied, but when a customer is unexpectedly delighted (commonly referred to as ‘surprise and delight’ in the loyalty industry) their satisfaction levels will be substantial.

Schwarz (1987)[1] ran a study to test the impact of a positive event occurring on a subject’s overall life satisfaction. He placed a small coin on a photocopier for the next user to find. He then conducted an interview with those who found the small coin about their life perspective. ‘Those who found the coin were happier, more satisfied and wanted to change their lives less than those who didn’t find a coin’, reported Schwarz.[2] The value of the coin appeared to be irrelevant; it was significant that something positive and surprising happened to them.

There is evidence to suggest surprise and delight activity can improve a person’s liking towards another. Regan (1971)[3] ran a study where a participant provided an unexpected bottle of Coca-Cola to the subject. Subjects reported liking the person giving the free Coke more than when no Coke was provided.

Mellers et al (1997)[4] explored the power of surprise and delight by looking at the difference between expected and unexpected positive outcomes. Their decision affect theory demonstrated that unexpected outcomes have a greater emotional impact than expected outcomes, even when the reward was of lower value. Their study required students to complete a task. The students were either told how much they would be rewarded prior to undertaking the task, or were surprised with a reward after completing the task. Smaller, surprising wins were shown to be more elating than larger, expected wins. For example, the researchers found a surprise $5 reward was rated as more enjoyable by subjects than an expected $9 reward.

Oliver et al (1997)[5] developed a customer delight model which hypothesised the loyalty psychology underpinning this effect. They found evidence that positive surprise and delight experiences elicit pleasure, joy and elation. They also proved that delight is a positively valanced state reflecting high levels of consumption-based affect, and the experience of delight creates a desire for future recurrences of the sensation via the repetition of consumption, which creates loyalty.

Most importantly, delighted customers have been proven to demonstrate higher loyalty to a company. Berman (2005)[6] reported significantly higher levels of loyalty from delighted versus satisfied customers. The findings also noted other potential positive consequences of delight to ‘include lower costs due to increased word-of-mouth promotion, lower selling and advertising costs, lower customer acquisition costs, higher revenues due to higher initial and repeat sales, and long-term strategic advantages due to increased brand equity and increased ability to withstand new entrants.’

Berman cites one study where ‘Mercedes-Benz USA found that the likelihood that a client who is dissatisfied with the service at a retailer will buy or lease from the same retailer is only 10 per cent. Mere satisfaction produces a 29 per cent likelihood of rebuy or re-lease. However, the likelihood of a delighted client rebuying or re-leasing is 86 per cent.’

Turning to neuropsychology, Pagnoni et al (2002)[7] found evidence that an unexpected event (such as surprise and delight) can powerfully stimulate the nucleus accumbens (the ‘pleasure centre’ of the brain), releasing dopamine into the blood stream, a hormone related to addiction. Subjects underwent MRI scans while having fruit juice or water squirted into their mouths through a tube either in a predictable or unpredictable pattern.

The study found the nucleus accumbens responded much more strongly when the liquid was unanticipated, even with water. ‘The region lights up like a Christmas tree on the MRI’, said study co-author Dr Montague. ‘That suggests people are designed to crave the unexpected.’[8]

Applications of surprise and delight campaigns within loyalty programs are extensive. They may include airline, hotel, rental car and banking programs sending premium members surprise gifts, telecommunications customers being invited to select from a range of unexpected rewards or meal kit delivery customers receiving something extra in their box.

As the research shows, if executed correctly, surprise and delight can be an extremely powerful tool used to generate an emotional connection with a company or brand, to drive purchase behaviour and to create genuine member loyalty. In order to execute surprise and delight effectively it should be unexpected (i.e. telling a member they will receive a $10 voucher on their birthday is not surprise and delight), be viewed as a gift, hold a perceived value and focus on the customer, making them feel truly special and recognised in that moment.

Mastercard Priceless Surprises Mastercard US have been running a long-term advertising campaign which drives their social media presence called ‘Priceless Surprises’.[9] The campaign surprises cardholders with spontaneous gifts ranging from specialty cupcake deliveries, concert tickets and seat upgrades to celebrity meetings. The #PricelessSurprises campaign has surprised almost 100,000 cardholders spanning 25 countries, with Mastercard enjoying the benefits of masses of user-generated social media content which they also use to connect with potential cardholders.[10] They have even inspired existing members to gift their own surprises to family and friends, further expanding their reach and advocacy.

[1] Schwartz, N., 1987, ‘Stimmung als Information (Mood as information)’.

[2] Ager, S., 1999, ‘A dime can make a difference,’ The Baltimore Sun, https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/bs-xpm-1999-08-22-9908240363-story.html, accessed 11 June 2020.

[3] Regan, R., 1971, ‘Effects of a favor and liking on compliance’, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Vol 7, Iss 6, pp627-639.

[4] Mellers, B.A., Schwartz, A., Ho, K. & Ritov, I., 1997, ‘Decision Affect Theory: Emotional Reactions to the Outcomes of Risky Options’, Psychological Science, Vol 8, No 6, pp423-429.

[5] Oliver, R. L., Rust, R. & Varki, S., 1997, ‘Customer Delight: Foundations, Findings, and Managerial Insight’, Journal of Retailing, Vol 73, Iss 3, pp311-336.

[6] Berman, B., 2005, ‘How to delight your customers,’ California Management Review, Vol 48, Iss 1, pp129-151.

[7] Pagnoni G., Zink C. F., Montague P. R. & Berns G. S., 2002, ‘Activity in human ventral striatum locked to errors of reward prediction’, Nat Neuroscience, Vol 5, pp97-98.

[8] Sommerfield, J., 2002, ‘Human brain gets a kick out of surprises’, MSNBC,  http://www.ccnl.emory.edu/Publicity/MSNBC.HTM, accessed 11 June 2020.

[9] Mastercard, Priceless Surprises, https://pricelesssurprises.com/, accessed 29 June 2020.

[10] Ad Age, ‘Best Practices: How Brands Can Build Loyalty With ‘Surprise-and-Delight’ Efforts’, https://adage.com/article/digitalnext/brands-build-loyalty-surprise-delight-strategies/298425, accessed 29 June 2020.

<a href="https://loyaltyrewardco.com/author/maxs/" target="_self">Max Savransky</a>

Max Savransky

Max is the Chief Operating Officer at Loyalty & Reward Co, the leading loyalty consulting firm. Loyalty & Reward Co design, implement, and operate the world’s best loyalty programs for the world’s best brands. Max has consulted on 40+ projects and has previously held roles at Mastercard Loyalty, Pureprofile and HOYTS. Max leads the implementation and operations business functions, specialising in all aspects of loyalty consulting and program management.

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