When we first started our agency, we were a couple of broke 22-year-old guys trying to figure it out and save every penny. If we met with a client outside their office, we’d go to Starbucks or the local coffee shop around the corner, and pay our $10 “rent” for a couple drinks and a convenient table. It worked fine, but as anybody who has tried to grab a seat in a Manhattan cafe during a weekday afternoon will know, it was a little chaotic. Music would often be blaring, wifi was spotty, and tables, if they were even available, would alternate between sticky, crummy, and wet.
A few months in, we paired up with an established PR agency for a project. That agency’s CEO was an accomplished and respected industry leader who had been around the block, and we soaked up as much as we could while working together. She taught us a number of important lessons, but by far the one that stuck with me the most was one so simple it almost felt frivolous:
“Take your client meetings at the Four Seasons”
Starbucks would never appear on their agency’s expense reports. Every time she took a meeting with a new lead or existing client, they met over coffee or lunch at the fanciest hotel or restaurant in town. It was brilliant.
A couple lattes at Starbucks might run you $12. At the Ritz Carlton, your bill for the same will be about $20. For just ten more dollars, you can give your client a meeting that they’ll remember and brag about. Every other coffee is just a coffee. Coffee at the “fancy place” was special. Which means that you are special.
There are two psychological phenomena at play here to make this your best-ever marketing investment:
Popularized by the legendary scholar of influence, Robert Cialdini, reciprocity bias is the idea that we tend to “return the favor.” Our brains don’t like being in debt to somebody, no matter how big or small it is – from making a VIP email introduction to simply opening the door for somebody, and we are predisposed to making it up to the debtor.
Reciprocity is why bridal boutiques offer free champagne to shoppers, and why charities will ceaselessly mail you complimentary return address stickers. Once you got something from them, now you owe them something – or at least you believe you do. Treating your client to a coffee works the same way, once you pick up the bill they subconsciously “owe” you something. And while the tab may be just a few bucks, the reciprocal payback may be orders of magnitude bigger.
The halo effect describes the tendency for positive feelings towards a thing to cast a "warm glow" on adjacent people, places, or things. The halo effect is in play when you get a beloved celebrity to endorse your soda brand – people like the pitchman, so they like the product. More attractive models make you think that the clothes look better, best-selling authors blurbing a book make you think it's well-written, and the sports car parked in the front of the showroom makes you think that your minivan is somehow cooler and better performing. We benefit (or can suffer) from the perception of the things around us – even just holding a warm drink can make you think the person you're with is kinder and more trustworthy.
When we bring a client to a fancy restaurant for the meeting or a cool cocktail bar for that celebration, we're hoping that those positive associations rub off on us. We're banking on the professional service from the waitstaff symbolizing the professional service we'd offer, and we're signaling that the stunning interior design telegraphs that we have taste and talent as well.
Taken together, this is a powerful one-two punch. Your own brand is the sum total of all the interactions that people have with you, and treating them to a positive experience signals that you are a professional and that they are important.
Marketers and sales professionals get this, but even the CFOs among us shouldn't have a problem. Yes, coffee is more expensive at the Ritz than at Panera – but you're not having ten coffees a day every day. When you offer a client Evian instead of Dasani, or send a gift of Johnny Walker Blue Label instead of Black Label, the same calculus is at play: the cost difference is negligible over the course of a year-long balance sheet, but each of these moments turns the ordinary into the extraordinary. Cheap is a cost, but expensive can be an investment.