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The Secret Behind the World’s Stickiest Brands

The Secret Behind the World's Stickiest Brands

Anton Siebert, Ahir Gopaldas, Andrew Lindridge and Cláudia Simões

illustration of man sticking head into smart phone

How some breakthrough leisure brands hook users with vast catalogs of content and dynamic, unpredictable experiences 

The world’s top leisure brands, such as CrossFit, Pokémon Go and Tinder, have built empires by creating sticky journeys that keep customers as addicted as possible. Athletes don’t just work out at CrossFit, they’re obsessed with it. Gamers don’t just play Pokémon Go for a little while, they’re hooked for hours on end. Singles on Tinder don’t just hunt for new partners, they’re addicted to the hunt itself. And from Netflix to Spotify to TikTok, a new generation of media companies has completely transformed the television, radio and video industry. Audiences are no longer willing to sit through formulaic shows such as NBC’s “Law & Order.” They want “Game of Thrones”-like drama—compelling, polarizing, hard-to-pull-away-from serials that shock, delight and frequently enrage their viewers. 

The secret to the success of these breakthrough leisure brands is creating an insanely “sticky” journey that defies all the usual hyperrational rules of marketing. It’s not about creating consistently good customer experiences, but about creating intentionally chaotic, maddening and unpredictable ones. It’s also not about making services convenient, easy or satisfying, but instead about making them challenging, suspenseful and thrilling. The resulting customer journeys are exhilarating. We call these journeys sticky to emphasize that customers can’t seem to pull away. At the heart of these sticky journeys is an “involvement spiral”—a roller coaster ride of intensely good and bad experiences that keep customers riveted. 

How Do These Leisure Brands Create Such Sticky Journeys?

The first step is providing customers with “rapid entry.” That means giving customers free, quick and easy access to the service as soon as they express interest, whether in person or online. These brands don’t bore customers with a lot of information or ask too many questions. And they don’t pressure customers to sign up for a monthly subscription—at least not at the beginning. Tinder does this first step particularly well. Unlike traditional matchmaking websites that begin with extensive compatibility questionnaires, the Tinder app asks customers for no more than their age, gender and distance preferences. Customers can also import their photos from Facebook, so they can dive into the Tinder dating pool immediately.

The second step is providing customers with “endless variation” along the user experience journey. Whether we’re talking about dating, gaming, working out or something else, the only way to keep customers excited is by creating unpredictable experiences. Companies create such endless variation using a trio of techniques: 

  • Opening the service system to a massive number of service elements (e.g., the hundreds of possible exercises at CrossFit, virtual creatures in Pokémon Go or user profiles on Tinder). 
  • Making frequent additions, subtractions and changes to those elements. 
  • Offering unique configurations of those elements at each service encounter. 

For instance, CrossFit changes workouts daily and makes them extraordinarily challenging. Drawing on various sports, fitness regimens and military drills, no two workouts are ever the same. Once customers are swept up in the endlessly varied customer journey, they are more eager to sign up for monthly memberships. 

The third step is sparking new customer journeys as soon as the current ones begin to run out of steam. Leisure brands recognize that all journeys come to an end. Even the most exciting adventures can become familiar, exhausting or boring after a while. Eventually, brands must offer their customers new journeys. For example, Nintendo, the parent company behind the “Animal Crossing” game franchise, has launched an entirely new generation of the game every few years. CrossFit coaches invite advanced athletes to Barbell Clubs and CrossFit competitions. And recently, Tinder launched offshoots such as Swipe Night, an event that matches users based on their responses to an interactive movie. 

Wondering how to get un-hooked? Some customers can keep their recreational addictions in check, but many others cannot. Maintaining daily self-discipline is just too difficult. For compulsive users, there’s only one answer: Cancel your subscription, delete the app and call a friend. 

Most customers won’t do that, and leisure brands are counting on it. 

Anton Siebert is a doctoral student at Newcastle University London.

Ahir Gopaldas is an assistant professor of marketing in the Gabelli School of Business at Fordham University.

Andrew Lindridge is a reader in marketing at Newcastle University London.

Cláudia Simões is a professor in management, marketing area, in the School of Economics and Management at the University of Minho, Portugal.