In a small restaurant in Shinjiku, a suburb of Tokyo, I ordered sake. First, the waitress placed a small wooden box in front of me. Then she arrived with a large tray carrying 40 cups. Each one, she explained, represented a different personality. I chose a blue cup, which she removed from her tray and carefully placed in the box.
As she began to pour the traditional drink into my small blue cup, things took a decidedly unusual turn. I had, as most would guess, expected her to stop below the rim. Instead she continued pouring, the clear liquor overflowing into the wooden box. And then, when most of the cup was submerged, she stopped, smiled, bowed, and said, "Enjoy."
As I nimbly attempted to fish for the cup, I asked her why she had poured so much. Her answer surprised me. She said, "Martin-san, I do this to show gratitude—to deliver a little bit more than what you expect."
Do you remember the last time you got more than you expected? Perhaps you were shopping for groceries or even buying something online. Am I right in assuming that, rare as these occasions are, when they happen you don't forget them? When I was a kid, I was a devoted Lego builder, collecting box after box. I came to realize that Lego always placed a few extra bricks inside the box, bricks never accounted for on the list of inventory. Over the years I began to accumulate a secret collection of Lego's gifted bricks. Funnily enough, I valued this collection above all others. It took on a kind of sacred quality.
Some years later, I visited the factory and the manager told me that those extra bricks were more a matter of practicality than goodwill. They were included in an attempt to circumvent thousands of requests from distraught parents who had unsuccessfully searched for that missing piece lost under the carpets or beneath the furniture.
Devalued as my collection of special bricks may have been in that childhood moment, what Lego had inadvertently achieved was to over-deliver and under-promise. And that's what stuck with me.
These days, we seem to be following a reverse philosophy. We over-promise and under-deliver. Or, at best, we deliver exactly what was promised—nothing more, nothing less. Just think of that pre-packed shrimp salad you bought, where you found that there was not a single shrimp among the lettuce, only the four at the top of the plastic container. Or the big bag of potato chips that is more air than chips. In general, we are more familiar with a leaner scenario than we are with excess.
Several years ago, I checked into the Peninsula Hotel in Chicago. I asked the concierge if it was possible to borrow some music CDs. Over the years, I'd grown accustomed to listening to music supplied by other hotels in the Peninsula group. It's a service they offer to all their regulars. As the hotel was new, the clerk politely informed me that this particular Peninsula had no CD library. Oh, well, so it goes. Yet minutes later, the concierge called to ask me what my favorite music was. Eminem, ABBA, and the Beatles, I replied. I was curious about this, but it slipped my mind as I continued working.
About 20 minutes later, I heard a knock on my door. When I opened it, the concierge handed over a small bag containing three CDs. You guessed it: Eminem, ABBA, and the Beatles. "This is a personal present from us to you," the concierge said. "Welcome to the Peninsula."
Now's let's pause here for a second. I've related this anecdote to hundreds of thousands of people attending my conferences—and to millions who have watched my TV appearances. My guesstimate would be that some 15 million people have heard this story. The cost to the Peninsula? About $22.50.
Needless to say, the Peninsula experience is far from common. However, every time I hear consumers raving about a brand, almost without exception it's been the result of the brand over-delivering. In a world where promises are routinely ambiguous or broken, when we encounter such service we find it, quite literally, remarkable. Small acts of generosity imbue us with that rare feeling of being cared for or considered by a company. Perhaps, when it comes down to it, we're still kids falling under the spell of surprise. If it's better than what we expected—or hoped for—we remember it above all else.
Who knows? Maybe the brand manager responsible for your favorite brand will not only read this article, but will act on it. Don't get your hopes up—catering to you may cost a few dollars more than what has been budgeted. After all, few people are willing to step outside the plate and eat into the budget that's already been set aside for things like consultants or social media ads.
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, was published 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: Trust Me: Here's Why Brands Sell Trust, Subconsciously
[Image: Flickr user David Lofink]