The reciprocation phenomenon and a cheese museum – marketing psychology

Nicholas Moore

Reciprocation is a widespread psychological trait which marketers can tap into – for the benefit of their customers

I was on holiday in Amsterdam a few weeks ago when I witnessed one of my favourite retail marketing tactics – a case of ‘reciprocation’, implemented to perfection. While we were wandering through the city’s cobbled, canal-lined streets we chanced upon a shop calling itself the ‘Amsterdam Cheese Museum’.

While we knew it probably wasn’t the official cheese museum (if there even is one), we like cheese, so decided to stick our heads in for a quick look, intent on not buying any overpriced fromagerie of any kind.

Inside it was basically a shop with a small basement explaining how Dutch cheese is made, featuring some historical background to the art of cheese-making. It was interesting enough, but for me this wasn’t the best bit of the experience. The amazing thing was that in the shop section every single thing on sale (at least 100 types of cheese, plus assorted crackers and biscuits) had a generous pile of samples in front of it.

What’s more, the shop assistants followed you around with cocktail sticks actively encouraging you to try as many varieties and as much as you wanted. The samples were generous sizes and there was no shortage and no queues.

Ok, so as I’ve already admitted, I do really like cheese so of course I was bound to enjoy the experience. However, with my ‘marketing hat’ on it really got me thinking. First up – how can they possibly afford to hand out so much free stuff? I must have eaten about 10 euros worth of cheese.

Marketing reciprocation

This cheese shop in Amsterdam utilised the reciprocation trait to perfection

Secondly, why did I end up buying two blocks of cheese from them, even though it was definitely more expensive than pretty much anywhere else in the city? What’s more, I didn’t even feel like I’d been had or guilt tripped into buying it.

Essentially, because I’d been treated well I didn’t mind spending a little extra. As I queued up to buy my cheeses (a lavender-infused Gouda and a very mature Edam in case you’re wondering) I was fully aware that I was paying too much for the privilege,  but didn’t mind because the experience was so good and, probably at some level, I felt I owed them.

In the world of marketing this is known as the phenomenon of reciprocation and it relies on the human tendency of wanting to give something back when something is received.  That’s a nice thought, isn’t it? We’re not all horrible and selfish monsters after all. It seems deep down we feel a sense of obligation to do something for those who have done something for us.

Reciprocity is widespread in marketing and it’s possible you experience it on a daily basis. Have you ever invited someone to a party because you were invited to something they organised? Or how about buying a Christmas or birthday present for someone because they are getting you something or got you something in the past? Finally, and slightly closer to home, have you ever bought something because it came with a free gift or had an offer on it which interested you?

Reciprocation is a powerful emotional response and one which works well for marketers. It can help seal a sale, strengthen brand loyalty and foster advocacy. Here I am telling you all about this wonderful cheese museum in Amsterdam – I’ve clearly become an advocate already.

Okay, so the chances of you being in Amsterdam anytime soon may be slim, but what if that same process and advocacy could be fostered for a mainstream brand or for a local store in the UK?

Customer expectations

If you get reciprocation right you end up with loyal and happy customers

For me what’s so beautiful about reciprocation in marketing is that when done well it revolves around treating the customer well. Brands that treat the customer well, concentrate on making the experience as relevant, interesting and delightful as possible will do well. As we know, the customer experience is the key battleground in modern marketing.

Of course the ‘freebie’ needs to be relevant and of use/interest to the customer. To know what will work you need to know your customer. What do they want? What do they like? What do they need? It’s also important to strike a balance between what you can afford to give away and what will be effective. It needs to be affordable but it also needs to be of sufficient value to the customer – and the right balance may be slightly more than you are at first willing to provide.

To this end don’t just think about the immediate purchase. Take into account the brand loyalty and retention numbers it will impact when considering what to offer. If the freebie isn’t of a high enough value reciprocation won’t come into play – and there’s a risk you’ll look cheap. If it’s not going to be considered a valuable offering it’s better to not offer anything.

Because the investment needs to be significant to have an effect it is critical that decisions are made on a thorough understanding of your audience rather than a ‘finger in the air’ gut reaction. Picking and delivering the right freebie, which is going to deliver the best results, is a hard decision and one you need to make with as much supporting evidence, justification and data as possible.

Experian Marketing Services is the leading global provider of consumer insights, data quality and cross-channel marketing. We help organisations intelligently interact with today’s empowered and hyper-connected consumers.

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