Ad tales of the unexpected – why brands need to invest in magic and surprise


With almost half of consumers saying they are more likely to buy from companies and brands which surprise and delight them, money is being left on the table by those focused solely on efficiency.

So join Marie Stafford, Global Director at Wunderman Thompson Intelligence as she talks magic, enchantment, surprise and delighting in the absurd… 

Marie Stafford, Wunderman Thompson Intelligence.

In our hyper-rational world, opportunities for the spontaneous, the magical and the unexpected seem ever more elusive.

Increasingly, our lives are quantified and predicted; governed by algorithms which nudge and marshal us along well-trodden paths.

Little mystery remains when we can find the answer to anything in a swipe. Predictive tools finish sentences while algorithms suggest what we should read, watch and listen to; ushering us into cosy echo-chambers.

Meanwhile, culture itself is arguably increasingly formulaic, endlessly rehashing the past: Entertainment serves up sequels, prequels and remakes, while music ruthlessly samples its back catalogs. Magic and surprise are in short supply.

The same is true, it seems, for brands and creativity. Data-driven customer journeys corral us efficiently down the brand funnel, but in a recent study by Wunderman Thompson Intelligence, 70% of 3,000+ people in the UK, USA and China said they could not remember the last time a brand did anything to excite them.

Surprising us: Consumers want surprise, delight and unexpected things from brands.

Now, with the meteoric rise of generative AI tools such as ChatGPT, Dall-E and Midjourney, we risk falling even further down a hole of homogeneity.

This is leaving us jaded, according to psychologist Kirk Schneider, author of Life-Enhancing Anxiety: Key to a Sane World.

In an interview with Wunderman Thompson, he explained that an efficiency-oriented life leaves us “yearning for something deeper … a greater sense of purpose and meaning”.

Indeed, swerving the rational can be powerfully disruptive for brands. In his recent book The Fun Habit, psychologist Mike Rucker says that “the nucleus accumbens – the region of the brain associated with pleasure and reward expectation – responds most strongly to unexpected events.”

In other words, the dopamine rush associated with the unexpected heightens our pleasure.

This chimes with our research which finds that almost three quarters of people enjoy an element of mystery and surprise in the things they do, and that half actively want more of this.

Out of the ordinary: Research shows we all want a little extra magic and mystery in our lives.

The unexpected jolts us out of the mundane. It transports us and takes us on an adventure. It is the Groundhog Day antidote: 76% of people agree that when something is magical, it allows them to escape the mundane.

Brands that focus on giving their customers surprise and delight stand to reap rewards, too: Almost half of respondents say that this would even make them more likely to purchase.

Below we outline some of the ways brands can tap into the unexpected, the magical and the mysterious to help consumers transcend the everyday.

Delight in the absurd

The viral success of fashion brand MSCHF’s giant red ‘Astro Boy’ boots earlier this year signalled one thing: Surrealism is back. Brands are tapping into the power of the absurd to stoke imaginations and evoke the fantastical and the dreamlike.

Astro turf: Surrealism in action thanks to MSCHF’s giant red ‘Astro Boy’ boots launch.

See Louis Vuitton’s extraordinary collaborations with Japanese avant-garde artist Yayoi Kusama, which has been enchanting shoppers with everything from giant sculptures of the artist looming over the brand’s Paris flagship to onscreen anamorphic 3D illusions in Tokyo, London and Chengdu.

Deal in mystery

British streetwear label Corteiz has upended the rules of marketing in recent years, releasing products in limited numbers via a password-protected site or in surprise real world drops.

In late 2022, the brand announced a drop of 99 pence cargo pants on Instagram; all fans had to do was source a ticket and identify the sale location.

Thousands of Gen Zers followed GPS coordinates to descend on the Shepherd’s Bush neighbourhood in the scramble to land a coveted pair.

Trigger a few goosebumps

As Coltan Scrivner from the Recreational Fear Lab explained to us, surprises can be both light and dark. While scares are not for everyone, 57% say they like to feel a few goosebumps now and then – rising to 65% of GenZ and 67% of Millennials.

Fear in a safe environment can give us a pleasurable rush and even a sense of mastery. A great example is a 2022 activation from Tokyo cab company S.Ride, which invited those who dared to take a trip in the company of Sadako, the ghost girl from horror movie The Ring.

Craft moments of delight

Dropping surprise rituals into the customer journey is a great way to generate buzz. British online travel company Journee curates surprise trips for travellers where their destination is only revealed at the airport, in a social-media worthy envelope-opening ceremony airport.

And Southwest Airlines generated a press storm when it surprised customers on a flight to Honolulu, Hawaii with impromptu ukulele lessons and free guitars.

Air guitar: SouthWest delighted passengers with onboards riffs.

Break out of the echo-chamber

59% of GenZers believe that algorithms are creating digital echo chambers. Leading the fightback against predictability, French retailer Fnac launched its “Unrecommended by the Algorithm” campaign, which purposely recommends products that contradict its algorithms.

Customers could see their “anti-recommendations” on a special microsite alongside such messages as “The algorithm says that according to your profile you should not like this, but Fnac believes culture should be curious and free.”

Regardless of the delivery mechanic, surprise, serendipity and mystery are becoming increasingly powerful tools for brands to break through the noise, uplift consumers and deliver meaningful experiences. Vive la liberation!