We want to feel special. We want to belong. Entrepreneurs of all stripes have used this knowledge to create high value options for products and services. One of the most well-known examples of this approach is Studio 54, a popular nightclub in New York City during the late 70's. Instead of opening the door to just anyone, the owner stood outside and chose select people to let in. Once inside, VIPs might be allowed into a second, more exclusive space. A room inside that space might be set aside for an even more select group.
You can see this same idea at play on the red carpets of award shows. The famous walk slowly down one side of the carpet, posing for innumerable photos, while the rest of the attendees file down a walkway provided for the invited-but-not-famous-enough-to-be-photographed. The least important, of course, never get into the theater. For those who want to belong, the idea of a "velvet rope" barring admittance creates enormous emotional value.
This approach to marketing is hardly new. From first-class accommodations on cruise ships and VIP lounges in airports to closed-door sales for invited customers and exclusive credit card programs, every kind of business has employed this technique to entice clients to spend more and encourage valuable customers to shop nowhere else.
However, keeping people out is not the only way to establish a fan base. Providing opportunities to those willing to learn or participate in specialized programs takes a more positive approach that produces the same results. Nonprofit organizations can create volunteer opportunities for those willing to go through a training program. Theaters and art museums can offer advanced courses for those who participate in introductory level classes. Providing an option to earn access can also be a powerful motivator with significant emotional value.
One advantage to this approach is our tendency to create and sustain habit. Once a customer gets used to buying from a particular vendor, she is less likely to shop elsewhere. Habit rules the mind and creates a barrier to competition. Once you’ve planted your flag in a customer’s thoughts, branding becomes a game of “king of the mental mountain.” And when you've asked your customers to work for the privilege of attaining special status, that habit becomes far more deeply ingrained.
Creating "Velvet Rope" Value: Tonya’s Tasters
Tonya’s restaurant was slowly gaining a reputation as a good place to try out the inventions of a young, classically trained chef. Her modern takes on traditional dishes had garnered some press attention, but this had not yet translated into a regular customer base.
Tonya decided to try the velvet rope technique, but she didn’t want to put up signs for a loyalty program or send out mailers that might cheapen her high-end brand. She decided, instead, to utilize her flair for new dishes and create a cadre of “Tonya’s Tasters.”
When a table was seated, the waitperson would ask the assembled guests if they were members of this new program. If guests replied that they were unfamiliar with it, the program would be described: those who want to participate receive a small sample of a new dish before the first course. There is no charge for the taste, but participants are asked to provide a brief critique and an email address on a small card each time they receive a sample.
The guests were told that Tonya wanted to receive feedback from her customers to help plan future menus, and that she wanted assistance from the sophisticated palates of her regular customers to guide her choices. Many guests were delighted to be asked to provide an opinion, and Tonya was able to build a database of guests that included information about how often they returned, the average party size, the average check and if they had any food preferences. Those guests that allowed email contact also received special promotions for traditionally busy nights, further cementing the relationship between habitual guests and Tonya’s restaurant.
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