Click here to preview the new Fast Company

Want to try out the new

If you’d like to return to the previous design, click the yellow button on the lower left corner.

Under-Promise. Over-Deliver. And Your Brand's Fans Will Talk

It's when companies under-promise and over-deliver that people experience memorable moments that will affect their habits for a lifetime.

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.

Brandwashed 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

Read more by Lindstrom: Trust Me: Here's Why Brands Sell Trust, Subconsciously

For more leadership coverage, follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn

[Image: Flickr user David Lofink]

Add New Comment


  • Chris Barr

    Brilliant post! I order parts for my bike from a company online and in every delivery there's always a small packet of sweets. You won't find anything on their website about it, and they don't charge you any extra, but you'll always get this small pack of sweets. Perfect for cyclists!

  • Kathleen ONeil

    Great post!  Going out of your way to create a memorable customer experience will never go out of style.  Jan Carlzon wrote a book titled "Moments of Truth" in the late '80s that expands on how creating memorable experiences such as the ones you've described can have a multiplier effect thru word-of-mouth marketing.  This is even more true, in today's socially networked world.  @kathoneil27:twitter 

  • Stan Phelps

    Love this post. Great examples from Shinjiko, LEGO and the Hotel Peninsula. I'm a firm believer that with a conscious effort, this can be a game changing marketing strategy. I've recently just published a book entitled, "What's Your Purple Goldfish?" It the culmination of collecting 1,001 examples of marketing lagniappe. Lan-what? Pronounced lan-yap, it is a Creole word for "the gift" or to "give more." The origin of the word traces back to the early 1800's.I firmly believe that the biggest myth in marketing is the idea of "meeting expectations." Brands need to focus more on the customer and find signature ways to "give little unexpected extras" or what I call marketing g.l.u.e. Social media is great, but you need to give your customers something to talk, tweet, blog and post to Facebook about.

    Mark Twain once said that, "Lagniappe is a word worth traveling to New Orleans to get." I'm hoping most brands won't have to travel that far. Here is a link to an advance reading copy on Scribd: and some feedback on the book launch:

    Warmest regards,
    "The longest and hardest nine inches in marketing . . . is the distance between the brain and the heart of your customer. There are no shortcuts on the extra mile."

  • Deena McClusky

    I totally agree that the "above and beyond" factor plays a key role in developing word of mouth. I have spent more than 10 years insisting that anyone I know traveling through Europe stay at Hotel Schloss Monchstein in Salzburg because it is one such "above and beyond" place. A little effort really does go a very long way.

  • Tom Turner

    I agree wholeheartedly with a caveat! Please deconstruct your experiences. 

    Lego gave you an inventory so you knew that you got extra pieces. And you were a thoughtful and appreciative kid that recognized the gift components as more than you expected.

    The Peninsula concierge set you up with a loaded question. He asked what you liked. He didn't do some popularity calculus and go buy a U2 and Pink Floyd CD. He bought what you wanted. "No" doesn't always mean "We don't want to". Your expectation of CDs was already there, but I'll bet it included memories of U2 offered instead of ABBA et al that you wanted.

    The truly generous are unfortunately humble enough not to be so manipulative. As a business practice, such generosity must be done with an eye toward effectiveness. It removes some of the warm and fuzzy from charming stories, but know that "Wow, thanks!" only comes when the customer recognizes and appreciates the extra effort, extra value and actually wants the freebie. 

        Know specifically what satisfies.
        Make sure the recipient understands they are getting extra. 
        Make sure that the recipient is aware that some effort made it happen. 

    Don't leave anonymous potpourri for a man with allergies and expect a "Wow, thanks!" It will look like a sick joke instead of an over-delivery. 

    I try to teach this concept to technology workers. Be able to tell a customer what you are doing extra, tell them why it is valuable to them, don't over deliver to someone that does not want you to. 

    My Story: 
    I spent 10 minutes and a handful of computer wipes to clean up a customer's laptop screen and keyboard. When he saw it, he said, "Please don't do that again. I keep it nasty so my daughter won't play games on my machine.  It keeps me from getting hundreds of viruses and malware. She won't clean it up, but she also won't touch it when there is food and gross stuff all over it. It is more effective than anti-virus or anti-malware programs" 

    So I apologized and bought him a barbecue sandwich with extra sauce. 

  • Michael Martel

    Great post.  Some businesses today are on cost cutting rampages.  They don't see the value in providing small services that they don't charge for.  As you point out, a $22.50 effort can result in $10,000s of potential good press.  Even if it doesn't, it makes the customer and employees feel good.  That can't hurt.

  • andy_mcf

    Your comment illustrates the true value of exceptional service.  Exceptional doesn't have to mean perfect, just better than expectations.  The $22 earned further customer loyalty and someone who promotes the brand favorably.  
    The money saved through short-sighted cost-cutting wreaks havoc on reveneue and profitability.  Unfortunately, such effects are not easily seen and measured, so the cost-cutting continues.  Here's an example of how poor policies cost real money:  American Airlines’ Poor Policy Costs $75,000