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Nirvana, Burritos and the Dollar Shave Club: Going Viral with Surprise Marketing

Wanna go viral? Take a lesson from Nirvana, burritos and the Dollar Shave Club.

20 years ago when Nirvana released their album Nevermind, I believe they rose to popularity partly because they hit a desired balance of familiar and the unexpected. Take the song Lithium, for example. The song begins with the guitar outlining harmonies in the very familiar key of D Major. The harmonies continue along for two bars in the predictable D Major key until suddenly, in the third bar, our ears are surprised with an harmonic progression way outside of D Major, specifically the progression B♭ Major – C Major – A Major – C Major. When you hear an unexpected musical twist such as this, you experience a zing of pleasant emotion.

As it turns out, unexpected surprises in small doses actually stimulate the pleasure center of the brain. But this finding probably doesn’t surprise you.

In 1996, I visited San Francisco. While I was there, I was taken to a restaurant called la Cumbre where they served burritos. “Burritos? I’ve had burritos a million times. What’s so special about a burrito?” But when they handed me a monstrous two-pound burritón. I laughed out of pure shock. These days, of course, the Mission-style burrito is everywhere. Why? I believe these burritos are so popular because even now they still give us a pleasant little zap of surprise when we see (and eat) them.

How about the first time you saw the ad for Dollar Shave Club? At the start of the ad, we see what appears to be a rather boring looking man; clean shaven, classic hair cut, collared shirt, and a tie. It almost feels like it’s going to be another Hair Club for Men commercial (which I believe was the inspiration for the entire marketing strategy of Dollar Shave Club, including the name). But 10 seconds in, we’re suddenly smacked in the face with unexpected and downright shocking twists and turns.

Surprise is a common element in things that “go viral.” Which is why I don’t always drink beer.

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