The Power of Surprise as a Marketing Tool

CHATTOPADHYAY, Amitava | KIM, Christine | WADHWA, Monica | 王文博

Before any new product is launched, it must be tested. As customer reviews flow in, companies may find that they receive more than they bargained for. Customers may use a product in ways never anticipated by the brand, discovering novel benefits. How should brands harness the power of such serendipity? This was the question asked by HKUST professors J. Christine Kim and Wenbo Wang and their co-authors. In a pioneering 2019 study, the authors found that surprise may be a powerful marketing tool.

Whether a weight-loss supplement that aids sleep or an anti-aging supplement that can reduce arthritis pain, products regularly yield unexpected advantages during testing. This can present a conundrum for manufacturers. Specifically, say the authors, “it is not clear how brands should communicate these unexpectedly discovered benefits to their potential consumers.” Should such benefits be presented as if intended all along? Or should they be framed as a surprise, to pique consumers’ interest?

Two competing theories dominate current thinking. “Research on intentionality suggests that unexpected-benefit framing should negatively impact overall consumer preferences,” the researchers explain. In other words, when customers believe that a product benefit is unexpected, they assume that the company invested less effort and thus expect the product to be less effective. Alternatively, framing unexpected benefits as a surprise may stoke customers’ desire by leading them “to anticipate other unexpected benefits from the target product.”

The researchers devised six experiments to empirically test these contradictory predictions. In one, consumers were shown advertisements for a sunscreen spray with two key benefits: protecting the skin from wrinkle-causing ultraviolet rays and making the skin look brighter and more even. The advertisements described these benefits as either unexpectedly discovered or intentionally developed. The researchers then measured consumers’ desire to buy the sunscreen spray.

The results were instructive. When customers believed that a product’s benefits were unexpected, they were more likely to purchase the product when customers were in a heightened state of seeking pleasurable experience. For instance, unexpected benefits made a product more desirable when the product was hedonic (primarily pleasurable purchase), but not when it was utilitarian (primarily functional purchase).

Although the researchers focused on unexpected product benefits, their sixth and final study also explored how marketers should present negative side-effects. They found that “unexpected framing does not always positively impact product desirability.” When a negative feature of a product is framed as unexpected, the product is unlikely to be desirable to “those who have a heightened sensitivity to impending negative outcomes.”

This pioneering study sheds new light on how consumers perceive products’ side-effects and how such perceptions can influence their purchasing intention. “When consumers have a heightened sensitivity to rewards,” the researchers conclude, “framing a product benefit as unexpected can positively impact the desire for the product.”

These findings offer a basis for future marketing campaigns. “Communicating some benefits as unexpectedly found may be a better strategy for enhancing desire for a product,” the authors suggest. This strategy may prove especially beneficial in the digital world, the researchers note, “wherein consumers are increasingly becoming important marketing agents.”

KIM, Christine

Assistant Professor


Associate Professor