News & Views

Opinion / Brands Need to Start Playing Hard to Get

by Sophia Epstein

Instead of opting for an in-your-face, buy-this-thing approach, brands should try playing hard to get. This tactic can turn casual buyers into loyal consumers, using the intrigue of the unknown to tempt them into a branded community.

Now, before all the Byron Sharp-ists get up and leave, give me a chance to explain.

This is not to say that the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute has been spouting nonsense for the last decade, of course mental availability is essential. Mental availability, for those who haven’t read Sharp’s How Brands Grow, is a concept that outlines how likely customers are to think of a brand when they’re in buying situations, and to achieve it a brand needs to be recognised.

Recognition is not the question here, it’s about what to do after you’ve got it. You don’t ‘play hard to get’ in life by staying home on a Saturday night, and brands won’t get results doing that either. But once your name is out there, there’s no need to keep ramming it down your customers’ throats.

Adidas followed this strategy to a tee with the launch of its Glitch football boots with Iris, London. Not only were the shoes exclusive to the UK, they could also only be bought through an invite-only app, which was designed by Possible. Only 250 people were given access to the app at first but each one was given a few invite codes so the community could grow gradually. Two months later, they’d hit about 6,500 registrations.

‘There’s a fine balance between how exclusive you want to keep it versus opening it up to everyone, and I think we’ve seen a very steady level of growth so far,’ Adidas Football’s director of business development Marc Makowski, told us in an interview (paywall). The ‘playing hard to get’ tactic allowed Adidas to turn a simple shoe purchase into an engaging experience, ultimately lengthening the time customers were spending with the brand and bolstering the connection they were making with it.

‘Obviously it’s an experience buying a premium football boot with interchanging looks and functionalities, but it’s also built out into a bigger experience through the community we’ve created around it,’ he said. ‘It’s been super interesting to observe the way people’s behaviour changes because of the exclusivity. People were looking for codes, people were offering codes; we essentially gave people a reason to connect with each other.’



Notions about playing hard to get have been around for ages, and not just in old editions of Cosmo. In his book, Modern Romance, comedian Aziz Ansari refers to a Socratic dialogue written by Greek philosopher Xenophon: ‘A prostitute once went to Socrates for advice and he told her: “You must prompt them by behaving as a model of propriety, by a show of reluctance to yield, and by holding back until they are as keen as can be; for then the same gifts are much more to the recipient than when they are offered before they are desired.”’

Even in 400 B.C., this strategy was being put into practice. The point is, the intrigue of the unknown is so powerful that you can use it to engage even your most casual customers – whether you’re a brand or a prostitute.



When Everlane started its ‘Instagram incubator’ (paywall), it only accepted 100 new followers a day. Those who could access the private Instagram profile could see new products and click through to buy them before they were widely available. Users were also asked to give feedback on items the brand was testing. So, just like Adidas, Everlane facilitated brand-centric conversations. ‘We’re making it private in order to have a curated, high value experience,’ head of social media at Everlane, Red Gaskell, told Digiday. ‘People will feel like they’re in on something.’

That’s the kicker: Once their customers have made it into the fold, brands need to turn off the cold shoulder. After working so hard to break in, customers will be inclined to stay for a while, but if the community they’ve joined is disappointing they’ll leave – and the brand will have to go back to playing the field.