Monday, April 14, 2008

Gratuitous Not Included

“We picked up one excellent word — a word worth travelling to New Orleans to get; a nice limber, expressive, handy word — "lagniappe." They pronounce it lanny-yap. It is Spanish — so they said. We discovered it at the head of a column of odds and ends in the Picayune, the first day; heard twenty people use it the second; inquired what it meant the third; adopted it and got facility in swinging it the fourth. It has a restricted meaning, but I think the people spread it out a little when they choose. It is the equivalent of the thirteenth roll in a "baker's dozen." It is something thrown in, gratis, for good measure.”

-from “Life on the Mississippi” by Mark Twain

Perhaps marketmambo’s greatest contribution will be the first use of a Mark Twain quote at the service of marketing thought. Twain owned a casual insight into people unchallenged by any ten market researchers. We would be satisfied with this legacy, but disappointed that it occurred so early in our time on the stump.

The word and idea of lagniappe first came to our attention several years ago on a trip to ante-deluvian New Orleans to pursue our life-long love of excess and gluttony. Imagine our thrill at the arrival of an unexpected appetizer or, upon re-checking our math, we confirmed that our order of a dozen shrimp included, in fact, thirteen total. An undisciplined wait-staff? No, just the modern manifestation of a Caribbean tradition rooted in the informal and personal exchanges occurring in street markets.

“Pourquoi marketmambo?” we hear in your thoughts. “Why all this blog space on Mark Twain, unexpected appetizers, and quaint but outdated Caribbean traditions?”

Because since April Fool’s Day, we at marketmambo have been thinking about the gratuitous gesture: a small act performed without the expectation of reciprocity.

On April 1 of this year, two very large organizations offered their audiences a lagniappe as the latest installment of their marketing traditions: the April Fool’s Hoax.

Google launched two new products in the US. “Virgle” solicited applications for this joint-effort between Google and Virgin to join them in the future colonization of Mars. “Earth has issues, and its time humanity got started on Plan B.”

Google also launched “Gmail Custom Time” bearing the tagline “Be on time, every time”. This new product, which if real would revolutionize the world of marketmambo, allowed users to stamp emails with the time and date of their choice. Users had the additional option of having their email marked as “Read” in the recipient’s mailbox. A testimonial by one user of Gmail Custom Time relayed their experience:

"I just got two tickets to Radiohead by being the 'first' to respond to a co-worker's 'first-come, first-serve' email. Someone else had already won them, but I told everyone to check their inboxes again. Everyone sort of knows I used Custom Time on this one, but I'm denying it."

And the pranksters at National Public Radio could not deny their urge to hoax. We first were Fool’s for NPR several years ago when the station off-handedly announced the purchase of Arizona by Canada. The keypads of the marketmambo phones were being pounded by jingoistic outrage when the credibility of the story came into question.

This year NPR offered a review of a new musical piece by the pioneer of “subminimalism”, Simon Fluegel. The work “B-flat” was given hyperbolic praise by the reviewer, though it consisted only of three minutes of the title note.

Are these gestures truly gratuitous? Perhaps in spirit, though they were certainly reciprocated. YouTube is currently hosting over 700 videos created in response to the launch of Virgle. Google received a nice little bump in blogging activity beginning immediately upon the announcements of these new products. Visits to the NPR website spiked.

This of course would be an accomplishment for most marketers who so love their numbers and charts and calculations of return on investment. All of these are certainly important, but let’s add one more quote to our collection, this one courtesy of Albert Einstein: “Not everything that can be measured counts. Not everything that counts can be measured”.

We at marketmambo suspect that these small gestures, without the expectation of reciprocity, generate goodwill among all in the audience from whom they elicit a smile. They depict a personality for the brand which goes well beyond that created by any advertising. A gesture is, after all, an action. It is a moment when we see the organization acting, not telling us what it would like us to think.

And we expect that these gestures are more valuable because they are unexpected. Research into people’s evaluation of character inferred from another’s behavior finds that it is specific to its domain. In English: It’s one thing to judge your neighbor to be caring when they retrieve your newspaper from the errant throw of the paper boy, its another when you see the same neighbor helping a stranger change a flat tire alongside a road. As the behavior becomes more general, the less it becomes contingent on the circumstances, and the more certain we become of our assessment of the character which motivates it.

What is the cost of the marketing lagniappe, what is the denominator we should use in our calculations of ROI? In dollar value, the cost is minimal. It’s the other required resources, the sincerity, creativity, and humanity, which are rare in that race devolved from the carnival barker: marketers.


Thanks to my brother, Juan Mambo, for his counsel, for he who shares his coffee with me on the field of thought is surely my brother.

And please check back soon for another posting on the gestures of marketers, which in this case are anything but gratuitous.


For a Wikipedia article on lagniappe, click here.

For a Wikipedia article on the history of Google hoaxes, click here.

To see Google’s invitation to Virgle, click here.

To see the page announcing Gmail Custom Time, click here.

For the link to the NPR article, the podcast and a performance of “B-Flat”, click here .

To see a list of the Virgle videos on YouTube, click here.

To see a chart of NPR traffic from Alexa, click here.


Unknown said...

A terrific insight. It's amazing how few companies are making the incremental investment in a lagniappe--an investment that can pay for itself many times over in word of mouth, goodwill and greater affection for the brand.
--John Rausch

Anonymous said...

What a fantastic way to look at it. When "surprise and delight" is done right, it's more powerful than just about anything, isn't it?

Great post.