One of the best smartphone deals of 2014 was from the brand called “Oneplus One”. The Oneplus One phone came packed with high-end features, at a very attractive price. But here’s the catch: this phone was not freely available to everyone who wanted it. You required an invitation to purchase the product. And this invitation could only be given to you by friends who had already purchased the phone, or an invite could sometimes be won at online forums.
Here was a brand which was playing hard to get. Oneplus One ownership was positioned as an exclusive club, entry by invitation only.
Cars and cookies Let’s turn for a moment from smartphones to smart cars. Here is news that may make car enthusiasts’ mouths water with desire. Last month, cricketer Virat Kohli took ownership of the fastest ever Audi car — the Audi R8 LMX. This car can sprint from zero to 100 km per hour in just three seconds and offers a top speed of 320 km per hour. It is priced at a whopping ₹2.97 crore. But even if you had this kind of serious money to splurge on this super car, you may not actually get your hands on one. Because Audi has built only 99 units of this car worldwide, and will make no more. One more brand that is playing hard to get.
If you thought this strategy was limited to expensive smartphones and cars, consider an everyday product, biscuits. The famous Kayani Bakery in Pune makes the most delicious Shrewsbury biscuits in the world. However, it makes only limited quantities each day and if you don’t reach there well in time, the biscuits are invariably sold out. So people like me make a beeline to this bakery as early as possible during the day, to pick up our share of the cookies. Shrewsbury biscuits from Kayani are on top of many Pune shopping lists, perhaps because they are somewhat hard to get.
Fundamental driver These stories lead us to an interesting question: why do brands across such diverse categories play hard to get? The answer lies in fundamental drivers of human desire. Several research studies have found that if we do not get something we want, we often end up desiring it even more. We all know that feeling — sometimes, if something is denied to us, or is made difficult to get, we chase after it with even greater vigour. Often, we continue this vigorous pursuit even if we are not in desperate need of the product, just because the chase becomes exciting in itself, a sort of challenge that serves as a powerful incentive to act.
A team at Stanford University published an interesting paper in 2010, titled Lusting while loathing , which provides yet another interesting perspective. This paper points out that being jilted — i.e. being thwarted from obtaining a desired outcome — can concurrently increase one’s desire to obtain the outcome but reduce its actual attractiveness. In other words, if products or brands are denied to us, we are likely to desire them more, even if we eventually end up liking them less. Consider that rich fat slice of chocolate cake, which is so desirable when it is denied to you, and yet so disgusting after you have eaten it.
All these perspectives point to an important insight: that making a brand or product hard to get often enhances consumer desire. This is a universal truth, though it may be particularly and more frequently true of luxury and status goods such as smartphones and cars, indulgence products such as gourmet cookies and wines, unique experiences such as fine restaurant meals or premiere shows.
Given that this is such an important consumer insight, what strategies have brands adopted to play hard to get? Here are some well known methods.
Limited editions This is perhaps the most common method used by brands to restrict supplies to consumers, and thus make the product very exclusive. We can learn from luxury brands, who are masters of this art. For instance, when Patek Philippe wanted to celebrate its 175th anniversary last year, it created limited-edition commemorative wrist watches, each of which was individually numbered. Harley Davidson announced last year that it would make only a few thousand of its top-end Custom Vehicle Operation (CVO) bikes. These would be available only for a year, and would be discontinued immediately thereafter. They sold out, in no time at all.
By Invite only Brands play hard to get by announcing that ownership is by “invitation only”. Earlier in this article, we read about Oneplus One, which has successfully pioneered this strategy in the competitive category of smartphones. Several real-estate brands in India have also begun adopting this method. For example, the Lodha Belezza project in Hyderabad, which is all about sky-villas set in a Californian landscape, is by invitation only. In the category of credit cards, there are some brands such as the American Express Centurion card that money can’t buy. They can only be owned if you are invited, by the issuer of the card.
The brand selects you In some cases, the brand selects you after you have embarked on a purchase, thus posing an interesting challenge that whets the desire of a particular set of customers. For instance, I have read about some Japanese Samurai chefs who prepare meals only for customers whom they select. If you have walked into such a restaurant, be prepared for the tough chef to say that he will not serve you, because he does not like your dress or hairstyle. I suspect many people will want to go back to such a restaurant, to get “selected” the next time around. The need to get selected drives desire too.
Limited time offers By restricting some products or offers to very limited periods of time, brands, including retailers, can create intense desire amongst consumers. E-commerce flash sales run by the likes of Amazon India or by Snapdeal are a good example of this. These events last for only a day, sometimes only for a few hours, and they spark a feeling of frenzy amongst buyers. Another interesting illustration is the case of fresh Alphonso mangoes. Because the mango season is so short, this is a limited time offer provided to us by Mother Nature herself. We all know how the desire for these delicious mangoes peaks during this brief window.
Long waiting lines Michelin star restaurants and exclusive clubs have perfected the art of playing hard to get by creating long waiting lines.
Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant that has been described as the “most desirable place to eat in”, holds 56 people at a time, has two seatings a day, and has a reservation waiting list of 60,000 people.
No wonder, wealthy celebrities and ordinary foodies lust to eat a meal at Noma.
At the legendary Mavalli Tiffin Rooms (MTR) in Bangalore, the large numbers of people in the waiting hall around lunchtime tell a story by themselves. Other modern brands have learnt fast. When Apple launched its iPhone6 last year, it is reported that people started camping in a long line outside the Apple store in New York’s Fifth Avenue up to 10 days before the launch, to get their hands on the first few phones. Of course, brands consciously encourage such behaviour, to provoke even greater hype and desire.
All these stories prove a simple point. Whatever be the product or service, there is always a way to play hard to get. Done with skill and finesse, it makes your brand even more desirable to your consumers.
Harish Bhat is author of the bestseller book “Tata Log: Eight modern stories from a timeless Institution”. These are his personal views. He acknowledges valuable inputs from Sria Majumdar, Tata Sons, in the writing of this article.
(The writer is member, Group Executive Council, Tata Sons)