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Every so often, a company learns that its product has unanticipated additional benefits. For instance, the brand StriVectin found that their stretch-mark cream also had a powerful anti-wrinkle effect. Unexpected benefits might seem like a bonus, but should they be marketed as deliberate? HKUST researchers J.Christine Kim and Wenbo Wang and their colleagues set out to answer this question.

By and large, consumers have been found to value intended benefits more than unintended ones. “This is because consumers associate intentionality with higher effort,” say the researchers. Unsurprisingly, then, consumers seem to welcome competence more than they do blind luck. By this logic, marketers should conceal the fact that a product’s additional advantages were unintended.

However, the neuroscience literature offers an alternative account of how people respond to pleasant surprises. For example, thirsty participants who receive unexpected sips of juice show greater activation in the brain’s reward centre than do those who anticipate receiving juice. If unanticipated rewards confer more pleasure than anticipated ones, explain the authors, “marketers may benefit from explicitly framing accidental benefits as unexpected.”

In an elegant field experiment with 21,514 participants, the researchers set out to identify the optimal strategy for marketing unexpectedly found product benefits. In conjunction with an online beauty product company, the authors created two ads for sunscreen spray offering both UVA ray protection and even toning. Very simply, “one version of the ad framed both benefits as intended,” report the authors, “while the other framed even toning as unexpected.” Results revealed that consumers who received the ad that framed one of the benefit as unexpected were more likely to buy the sunscreen than those who saw the ad that presented both the benefits as intended. This suggests that presenting unexpectedly found product benefit as such may be a better marketing strategy.

However, the situation may be more complex. Sometimes companies stumble upon benefits that are less well connected to a product’s original function. For instance, Viagra has been found to reduce heart attack risk in those with type-2 diabetes, and cosmetic Botox reportedly relieves migraine symptoms. Is it also best to admit the unintentionality of unexpected benefits when they are more loosely associated with a product’s intended function?

The researchers tried to find an answer to this question in a second experiment which randomly assigned 387 participants to imagine purchasing a skin-firming lotion that framed its main product benefits as intended or unexpected. Importantly, the researchers varied the unexpected product benefit to be either closely related to the intended benefit of the body lotion (even-toning) or loosely related (improving sleep quality) and found that participants were willing to pay more when the unexpected benefit was closely related to the main product benefit, but not when it was loosely related to the main product benefit. asked “Marketers should only advertise that a benefit came as unexpected if that benefit is congruent with the customer’s expectations for the product category,” conclude the authors.

These exciting findings could guide the development of marketing strategies. As for StriVectin, “marketers may even choose to create an entire brand story around the serendipitous discovery of the benefit,” suggest the researchers. Today’s digital world means that it is easier than ever for companies to identify unexpected benefits of their products. Proactive marketers could even launch promotions to unearth such benefits.