By  on April 15, 2009

Surprise marketing is target previewing Alexander McQueen at a pop-up store on Manhattan’s far West Side. It’s a phone number on customized Levi’s jeans that leads to the brand’s concierge service.

It’s not simply offering excellent service or quality products.

Although many marketers are hitting notes considered comfortable and familiar because of the recession, sounding chords of surprise has merits, marketing consultant Andy Nulman said. This form of marketing creates a sense of “pow,” versus those moments of “wow,” he explained. It’s the difference between “total shock” (pow) and “exceeding expectations” (wow), like the difference between a “major upset” in sports (pow) and a “great game” (wow), or a “new hair color” (pow) and a “haircut” (wow).

“It can make it more palatable, more bearable to take something on” in a weak economy, said Nulman, the author of “Pow! Right Between the Eyes (John Wiley & Sons; $22.95). “It can give you a jolt. You may not buy, but you’ll get a lift from it.”

Surprise is stumbling upon Target’s McQ Market, which was so far over on lower Manhattan’s West Side it was practically in the water. Surprise marketing is finding the gift of a commemorative Citi Field key fob on opening day on a table at Blue Smoke, a Danny Meyers restaurant in the FlatIron District with an outpost at the Mets’ new home. It’s viewing a silent, 30-second TV commercial for Carmel Car and Limousine Service on ESPN, CNN and MSNBC in which the nationwide firm promises in words crawling across the screen: “In times of economic turmoil, we want to give you a moment of peace and quiet…on us.”

Surprise marketing offers “quality that fascinates,” such as Nulman experienced in a visit to Japan, where he rode in taxi cabs with “lace-covered seats,” was offered umbrella covers at stores so the umbrellas didn’t drip while he shopped, and was provided with “sparkling clean” shirts and shorts to wear for his workout at a gym.

Nulman said surprise marketing moves beyond “quality that is expected,” beyond the quality that would characterize, say, enjoying a good meal from Whole Foods or discovering cutting-edge designer fashions from Barneys New York.

Taking things out of context is one way to stir surprise, like playing classical music in a locker room before a big game, serving Coca-Cola in Champagne flutes, or as Nulman put it in “Pow!”: “Anything that switches two norms into one abnorm.”

This tactic was used in February at Target’s McQ Market, one of 10 pop-ups it has staged since its first temporary shop in 2002. The pop-up provided a sneak peak for shoppers and potential buzz for Target: McQueen’s apparel and outerwear, priced from $19.99 to $129.99, wasn’t being sold at the chain until 18 days later.

By the second afternoon — Feb. 15 — of a two-day, limited engagement, more than 1,000 fashion aficionados and others had found their way into the Target McQ Market, which housed Alexander McQueen’s new McQ collection that drew a total of about 4,800 visitors, including guests at a preview for celebrities and media, said Joshua Thomas, a Target spokesman. The dates were chosen to coincide with New York Fashion Week.

Sitting across West Street from the Hudson River, with traffic zipping by at high speed, the shop could have been easy to miss. It temporarily occupied the ground floor of an empty warehouse, the entrance marked by split plastic drapes (think car wash), metal pins “piercing” the facade, arrow-in-Target-bull’s-eye stencils, and the spray painted graffiti: “Target McQ Market.”

The element of surprise continued inside. Dim lighting, androgynous poster models in klieg spotlights (“Rebel looks. Civil prices.”), and DJ Mel DeBarge spinning dance tunes like “December 1963 (Oh What a Night)” and “Could You Be Loved” set the scene for the McQ collection’s unisex styles.

The works of 10 New York City-based artists, such as paper sculptures with gesso and enamel by Chris Caccamise and computer screen savers by Trisha Baga, sprung from the shop’s clubby atmosphere. Curators roamed and engaged visitors in conversation. The pieces were chance finds amid apparel displays set in front of chain-link fences and rough-hewn, painted plywood.

“I like to present work in a different context for people who aren’t the usual art people,” said Caccamise, who didn’t expect to be sought by fashion production house OBO to create two sculptures for Target’s pop-up. A sense of the unlikely also inspired his “Fashion Designer ’09” and “Pat Benatar 1980,” pieces bringing the artist a $1,000 commission. An Alexander McQueen quote in The New York Times about the designer’s new venture with Target — “I’m bringing my culture to them” — struck Caccamise as “funny” and a show of “hubris,” and it became a type element in the “Fashion Designer ’09” sculpture.

Another surprise tactic was exemplified in a huge Domino’s Pizza giveaway that resulted from a computer snafu. It qualified for what Nulman, president of marketing agency Airborne Mobile, calls time-bombing, or “secrecy up front, explosiveness down the road.”

On the last day of March, Domino’s was scrambling to shut an inadvertent freebie: It mistakenly gave away $90,000 worth ofpizzas, with one topping, at shops nationwide, many of them in Cincinnati and Salt Lake City. Playing around with key words in Domino’s online search engine, someone entered the word “bailout,” which still appears in the Web site’s Big Taste Bailout promotion. This triggered credit for a free medium pie at their local shop’s electronic cash register, even though the deal hadn’t been green-lighted at corporate headquarters.

When the dust cleared, 11,000 pizzas had been given away, as the password spread quickly online. In a show good faith (and humor) to people disappointed when it nixed the giveaway, Domino’s offered a free dessert order of Cinna Stix via blogs that had spread the “bailout” password and in cell-phone text messages to customers in its opt-in marketing program, said Tim McIntyre, vice president of communications at Domino’s Pizza Inc.

Marc Gobé, chief executive officer of Emotional Branding, believes people need change — and when faced with too much similarity they will disconnect.

Brands that surprise people can communicate with them, Gobé has said.

On Election Day, Oren’s Daily Roast, a New York City chain of coffee shops, introduced and gave away “Blend 44” coffee consisting of beans symbolizing and chuckling over Barack Obama’s Kenyan and Hawaiian (Kona beans) roots, his days at Harvard Law School (Ethiopian Harrar) and his two years at Occidental College in Los Angeles (L-a Minita Costa Rica.) The joke also references the 44th U.S. president’s junior and senior years at Columbia University and his family’s new District of Columbia address, with two kinds of Colombian beans.

Upon spotting a phone number on the right thigh of his customized Levi’s jeans, Nulman himself had a time-bombing moment. Nulman dialed the number and discovered the brand’s concierge service, which offered him and three guests a “Champagne-fueled, one-hour shopping experience” at Levi’s San Francisco flagship.

Another pow for Nulman was the discovery of his new, favorite, $9 pajamas at Wal-Mart that have supplanted his Paul Smith pajamas as his top pair. Stranded without lost luggage for two days during a recent ski trip in Idaho, he outfitted himself and his sons for just $279 at Wal-Mart. “Did you know you can get Levi’s for $25 at Wal-Mart?” said Nulman, who nonetheless was wearing a Dubuc-designed, Sgt. Pepper-esque navy jacket as a shirt and still prefers his denimwear premium and custom.

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