Pinched By A Virgin

How "special" Legos, "stolen" salt shakers, and mysterious airport packages help brands over-deliver.

Virgin salt and pepper shakers

A couple of months ago, as I boarded my plane home to Australia, I found a large brown envelope waiting for me on my seat. Neat handwriting on the envelope said, "A personal note to Mr Lindstrom." My curiosity was piqued. Inside was a bunch of newspapers and a handwritten letter. It explained, "We've noticed you've been away from home for some time, so we thought you might enjoy some local news before we get you safely back."

I'm a firm believer that anyone with any kind of business savvy will aim to over-deliver and under-promise. Yet, for some unknown reason, the opposite seems to hold true. Perhaps this belief dates back to when I was a young kid obsessed with Lego. I'd get the box and build the car, the helicopter, the castle or whatever, and always at the end of each project I had a couple of spare Lego bricks. I treasured these almost more than the finished toy, and regarded them as a special gift from Lego. As my collection of Lego toys grew, so did my collection of "special" bricks. And then, on my eighth birthday, I was lucky enough to be one of the very few kids invited to the Lego factory. This was far more exciting than anything Willy Wonka could have offered. As I was being shown around, I asked the manager about the extra bricks in each box. His reply remains with me all these years later. He said, "Kids tend to lose bricks. Some throw them away accidentally, others end up under the living room couch. So, instead of having to replace them, we include them up front."

Just like that, my collection was devalued. It lost all the special qualities I believed it had. In a heartbeat my "special" bricks were transformed into very ordinary bricks in a pile of leftovers.

Silly as it may seem—I mean, really, we're only talking about a few newspapers and some stray Lego blocks—this is obviously not about the newspapers or the blocks. It's about the context of what's on offer, and even more importantly, how it's delivered. Ironically, a bit like the dictum, "You can't see the forest for the trees," if you're too close to your product, you tend to become blind to it. And that includes not being able to see how giving away something small can make an enormous difference to a person.

Take my business card, for example. It's black on one side, orange on the other. It has a real folded corner with the word "BRAND" embossed on the fold. Whenever the opportunity presents itself in Q&A sessions following any one of my speeches, I tell the story of my card. The first thing people tend to do when I hand out my card is touch the corner fold. They're immediately drawn to this slight deviation from the norm. I explain that not only are they registering a business card in their hand, but they are also using two sensory tracks—sight and touch.

Then there's a cultural dimension. In Denmark, the country of my birth, when someone's not in, it's common practice to leave a business card with a folded corner in his or her mailbox. It's a statement that indirectly says, "I was here to see you, but in your absence I've left a little bit of me behind." The most interesting thing that emerges after the seminars is it seems people would prefer to leave with my business card in their pocket rather than with my book in their hands. The cost of a business card? Less than 4 cents.

We live in a commercial world where if there isn't a direct correlation between what companies give away to their customers, and the immediate financial return, it simply won't be done. Perhaps a manager rejects the idea of gifting because they are dependent on a performance-linked bonus, and are unable to immediately determine the value, not to mention a measurable profit benefit. Perhaps, the CFO dismisses the idea as ridiculous, unable to accept a cost-incurring action that is not directly related to the product—no matter how small. So, companies tend to plod on with well-tried, well-tested solutions with no surprises, pleasant or otherwise.

But in reality, it is human nature to be thrilled to receive a little more than was expected. However, most companies tend to over-promise and under-deliver. Just think of banks and phone companies, who've almost turned over-promising and under-delivering into an art form. What about those two extra inches promised by airlines? They simply don't get it.

What I've learned over time is that a tiny act, dished out correctly in the right context to the right person, can make a huge difference. Take for example, the utterly delightful airplane-shaped salt and pepper shakers served with the meal on Virgin Atlantic. You can't help but be tempted to slip them into your hand luggage. And then, when you get home, to your great surprise you notice you're not alone because underneath you spot an embossed message that simply says, "Pinched from Virgin Atlantic"!

In most companies, the financial suits and run-of-the-mill managers would immediately conclude that all those stolen salt and pepper shakers cost the company a fortune. They don't bother to see how those two little plastic planes can spark a dinner-table conversation for years. And each time the subject comes up, they're turned over, checked out, and create smiles all around. Virgin Airlines becomes a regular part of the conversation. In fact if the idea is clever enough, someone might even write a column about them and publish it in Fast Company. Get my point?

Martin Lindstrom is a 2009 recipient of TIME Magazine’s “World's 100 Most Influential People” and author of Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy (Doubleday, New York), a New York Times and Wall Street Journal best–seller. His latest book, Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy, will be released in September. A frequent advisor to heads of numerous Fortune 100 companies, Lindstrom has also authored 5 best-sellers translated into 30 languages. More at martinlindstrom.com.

Read more by Lindstrom: Your Business Card Is A Billboard For Your Brand—What Does Yours Say?

[Image: Flickr user pixelens photography]

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3 Comments

  • Brian F. Martin

    Perfect example of this working well is product placement and sampling in hotels.  Huge opportunities for  hotel brands to go above and beyond and also connect the dots for consumers with the brands they are using in-house.  That being said, the Virgin Atlantic salt-shaker example is definitely a unique combination of branding, sampling and knowing your market and all brands could take a page from this.

  • W. Michael Hsu

    Absolutely loved it. I could've sworn I've read this story before only to realize that the author of this piece was the same author as one of my favorite book - buyology. Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us Martin - we've been trying to create something worth pinching ever since I was inspired by your book.

    Cheers.

  • Vince Skolny

    I do and  I like it. When I was a kid, I thought hotels put their names on the towels to stop you from pinching them. 

    I'm down with over-delivering and with not over-promising; but why would you ever under-promise? That's something I've never understood. What you can do is the baseline and there's no reason to promise less. Over-delivering is what you do beyond that baseline. And the baseline should be continually extended to promise yesterday's over-delivery as today's expectations.