Reject Your Customers Now

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“If you do not please all your customers, you will end up losing them”. It does sound logical, doesn’t it?

Yet, every Thursday, thousands of potential customers flock to their favourite fashion retail website, with only a few lucky ones managing to buy what they are yearning for.

What happens to most of them? They see the infamous “sold out” message appear on their screen. After this occurs not only once, but twice, three times...even five times, it’s safe to assume that customers will begin to feel a reasonable amount of animosity.

A typical marketing guru would now tell you to redesign and improve your customer experience to give your followers what they are looking for, in order to satisfy them immediately.

But what if we were to tell you that, there exists a streetwear brand called Supreme which has consciously designed its customer experience around rejection, just as described above?

When we think about rejection, our first association is most likely negative, at least at a conscious level. Indeed, we live in a customer-centric world, where “everyone in business seems to take it as a God-given truth that companies were put on this earth for one purpose alone: to pander to customers” (Brown, 2001). Brands, therefore, should please us and cater to what we demand: we are simply unaccustomed to anything but contentment.

A friend, only a few days ago, tried to buy a Birkin bag in Hermès; no matter how much she was willing to spend, they just refused to sell it to her since she was not “qualified” to purchase it.

In that instance she felt terrible, as would anyone. However, when you think about it, do you believe it will keep her from trying again in the future?

Given that Hermès is an infamous luxury brand, we will show that these companies are not the only ones who can benefit from proper rejection experiences.

Indeed, the aforementioned company Supreme - owning only 11 stores worldwide, producing extremely limited quantities of products and normally selling at moderate prices - has grown to be valued at one billion dollars, mainly due to its focus on rejection and exclusivity.

How was this possible? In a world where smaller companies struggle to compete, squashed under the weight of giants like Amazon, Nike, Adidas, and where other brands are losing their appeal, there is still room to leave your own mark and gain customers’ devotion.

Here are 3 takeaways explaining how even small companies can manage to rise to the top and become cult brands:

1. Become One of the “Cool Kids”

As any basic psychology book can tell you, the people we envy and desire the most are usually the ones that are out of reach. Do you remember the popular kid at school that you either wanted to be, or wanted to be with but never paid any attention to you?

Similarly, when a brand rejects us, we perceive it as exclusive and our desire to own its products becomes even stronger. A literature review conducted by Ward and Dahl in 2014 supports this notion, underlining how customers increase their regard, desire, and willingness to pay for products after brand rejection. This is exactly what happens at Supreme, where consumers are denied on a regular basis and yet come back. Not to mention the secondary market, where items are resold multiple times at their original price (reselling is not, however, supported by the company).

2. Know How to Entice Your Audience

As just mentioned, rejection can strengthen a customer’s relationship with brands, but does it work for every company?

In a retail context, data reveals that consumers are more likely to come back and seek out a product when: “(1) the rejection comes from an aspirational (vs. non-aspirational) brand and (2) the consumer relates the brand to his/her ideal self-concept” (Ward and Dahl, 2014).

Born as a brand for skaters, consumers originally formed an association between Supreme and the skating community. Nowadays, the brand appeals to a much wider audience. Its image has hence transitioned from appealing to skaters to becoming a staple of the “New York Cool” group. This places Supreme as an aspirational brand - making rejection acceptable to consumers looking to purchase their products.

Rejection is further made acceptable due to the fact that this “cool” image promotes an individual’s ideal self-concept and their desire to be considered as part of such a group.

In a nutshell, rejection framed as such does not work for every brand - you have to provide a deeper meaning for your consumers. But if you do, you don’t need to be a luxury brand - you can make any product an object of their desires.

3. Transform Frustration into Hope

According to the book “The Power of Habit” (Duhigg, 2014), every habit can be represented by the above loop, as theorized by MIT researchers at the end of the last century. This model is made of three components: trigger (or cue), routine, and reward.

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In Supreme’s case, however, there is no reward (getting the product) most of the time: the circle is essentially repeated between the trigger (online releases) and the routine (going on the website to try and buy something). Not being able to get what they want, customers risk to just feel frustrated. As Paolo Mazzara, Italian influencer with more than 170k followers on YouTube and Instagram told us in a brief email interview: “When the item I am trying to purchase is sold out, I feel miserable. Someone has been faster than me, even if I was extremely prepared. I honestly feel wiped out”.

How does the company then manage to perpetuate customer habits, to have them desire and buy its products time and time again? It is simple: releases of new products - yet limited - happen every Thursday at 11 AM on the online store. By doing this, the continuous hope of a reward - heightened by its exclusivity - triggers a consumer’s desire, and keeps this cycle going.

Customer experience design - just like marketing in general - cannot be a proven formula, but instead, it evolves according to time, space, and cultural frameworks.

Managing customer rejection is not for everyone - and not everyone can do it - but it can be a really valuable tool to strengthen your brand and ultimately gain customer loyalty.

However, this concept is relatively new and just few companies consciously design a proper rejection experience. Are you going to be the next? 


This post was originally published at ama.org. Raza Aslam, Claudio Dattolo, Grace Chen, Vishakha Pandey
and Anshul Gullani are students in Markus Giesler’s Customer Experience Design MBA elective course.