Awhile back, I was shopping in one of my favorite cities — Dunedin, New Zealand — when I met up with this little blue penguin. He was basking on the decorative rocks in an office park courtyard along Princess Street, smack in the center of the Central Business District. I knew that there were large colonies of penguins, sea lions, albatross and other creatures from the Antarctic in reserves and along the shoreline (admittedly a short walk from the center of the city, even for a penguin).
But I just never expected to meet a blue-eyed penguin on a city street.
Generally, as my husband knows, I like my surprises in small blue or gray boxes labelled “Tiffany & Co” or “Neiman Marcus”. But occasionally, I find myself smiling happily about a surprise that’s every bit as unexpected as a blue-eyed penguin.
For instance, recently I ordered 500 chocolate bars for a trade show. We had the wrapper emblazoned with a simple message, “Get a sweet taste of sales success”with our logo and web address. The surprise? Several weeks after the show, I unwrapped a broken, leftover candy bar, and discovered that the company logo, URL, and message were actually stamped into the chocolate, too.
I smiled all afternoon. Surprises that involve chocolate and something I got but didn’t pay for are good surprises. I could do with a few more of those in my life, couldn’t you?
Unfortunately, most of the truly unexpected surprises in my life don’t involve either chocolate or getting something for nothing.
My friend Dr. Joni Johnston told me once that one of the reasons that businesses wind up in court with their own employees is because they aren’t very good at explaining to their employees what to expect when they start the job. “When what happens is not what we expect, we have to rethink our understanding of our world,” she said. “Everybody makes educated guesses about what comes next, and surprise happens when what happens doesn’t match what we expected would happen.”
She’s right, of course. When what I expect is more than what happens in reality, I’m disappointed. And the more distance there is between reality and my expectations, the nastier the surprise. My emotional reaction to a nasty surprise can range from a mild disappointment to deep shock.
My husband, a retired science teacher, says that surprises cause leaning. He says that he may be surprised THIS time, but he won’t be caught next time. He calls it “changing the model in our head”, and says that we do it with little conscious thought. “It isn’t that you change what you actually do,” he says. It’s more that you change your internal idea of how things works, and your beliefs about yourself and other people.”
It is, of course, also the reason teachers give pop quizzes: because they want to shock their students into studying more.
So what does all of this have to do with marketing? Well, in marketing, the element of surprise is tricky. The only surprise I want prospective customer to have is a good one – and only when I want them to be surprised. No nasty surprises for MY customers or prospects, please!
In order to surprise them in the right way, I have to understand them and I have to carefully plan my communications with them in order to manage the surprise. I have to know how people are going to react, and that means testing, profiling my target audience accurately, and segmenting my target lists to make sure that the message and the target audience match each other very, very well.
I used to work for a company in the computer security business, and we used nasty surprises as a very effective sales and marketing tool. Not all businesses lend themselves to that, but a nasty surprise can be used to shake people out of a complacent state.
Nasty surprises have to be used with care, because they can boomerang on you. Our tactic was to be the bearer of bad news – but never to BE the bad news. We did this by telling people the awful truth about the current status of their computer security — while offering a solution to the problem. As each new Trojan horse or virus was discovered, we published alerts that warned people about the new threat — and explained what to do about it — with a link to a free “fix” for the problem. The message was simple: if you were one of our customers, this wouldn’t have happened to you, but we’re going to help you fix it anyway.
Of course, by the time it was fixed, all too many of the people who were infected had suffered significant financial or data losses. And a large number of them were very interested in making sure that they never had to deal wlith anything like that again — which made them the perfect audience for the message about a product that could stop the threat before it embedded itself into their computer.
They were ready, in other words, to accept the surprising change in their world, and take some action to avoid a nasty surprise in the future.
I think that’s the key to figuring out what to do when you meet a penguin on a city street. Whether it’s a good surprise or a bad surprise, the penguin isn’t going to go away no matter how much you tell yourself that there can’t possibly be a penguin in the street of a bustling downtown area where over 120,000 people are walking, shopping, and walking by the penguin basking in the sun. So you need to figure out for yourself if the penguin is a good surprise (Oh, look! Isn’t he cute!) or a bad surprise (Silly bird stinks and is blocking my parking space.)
Then you can decide what to do about it. What would you do if you ran into a penguin on your lunch break?