When a Cookie is More than Just a Cookie

Have you ever stayed at a DoubleTree Hotel? If you have, then no doubt you received a cookie when you checked in at the front desk. And it wasn’t just any cookie, it was a warm chocolate chip cookie presented to you in a bag that read:

This delicious chocolate chip cookie is our way of saying welcome to the DoubleTree by Hilton. Enjoy your stay.

That’s a nice way to start your stay! Now, contrast that experience with other hotels. Many give free cookies. I know Hampton Inns put cookies out every afternoon. Getting them out of the plastic case with tongs isn’t quite the same as being presented with them at a DoubleTree.

I’ve stayed at many Embassy Suites and they put out free cookies too. They’re usually located between the hotel entryway and front desk so you can grab as many as you want on your way in our out.

In my travel experience nobody talks about the cookies at the Hampton Inn, Embassy Suites or any other hotel. However, people rave about the DoubleTree cookies! They’re very tasty but it’s more than just how they taste, it’s also how you experience them.

In persuasion there’s a principle of influence known as reciprocity. It describes the feeling you have – an obligation of sorts – to repay the favor when someone does something for you first. Reciprocity is the difference between the DoubleTree cookie and all others.

Just because something is “free” doesn’t mean it’s viewed as a gift. If you don’t perceive something as a gift then there’s no obligation to do anything in return. Grabbing a cookie on your way in or out of the hotel doesn’t fit the bill when it comes to reciprocity. A hotel employee presenting (not just handing) you with a cookie taps powerfully into reciprocity. At a minimum you thank the employee but, as noted earlier, people rave about the DoubleTree cookie. As I wrote in the opening paragraph, it’s a very good cookie but presenting it the way they do is what sets the DoubleTree apart. Some people stay at DoubleTree hotels for the cookie above all else!


Reciprocity is a powerful principle of influence because the need to repay the favor weighs heavy on us. That’s why it feels like an obligation. Do you have “free” items for employees, customers or vendors? If so, how do you present those items? If people are required to get those things themselves then they’re probably not perceived as gifts. If that’s the case then you’ve lost an opportunity to tap into reciprocity and perhaps move people to yes when you need it next.

Here’s my advice – look at what you freely give away and consider how you’re doing that. Think of ways you might present those same items so they’re perceived as gifts. Sometimes a cookie is more than just a cookie and so it is with other items you may give to people. Remember, it’s when you give, not when people take, that reciprocity is engaged.

Brian Ahearn, CMCT®, is the Chief Influence Officer at Influence PEOPLE, LLC. An international speaker, coach and consultant, he’s one of only 20 people in the world personally trained by Robert Cialdini, the most cited living social psychologist on the topic of ethical influence. Brian’s LinkedIn Learning courses Persuasive SellingPersuasive Coaching and Building a Coaching Culture: Improving Performance through Timely Feedback, have been viewed by more than 65,000 people! Have you watched them yet? Click a course title to see what you’ve been missing.


4 replies
  1. Brad Timmerman
    Brad Timmerman says:

    Brian, great message. As part of my retirement, I deliver food for Panera Bread a few days a week. When I am delivering to a good customer, I will bring along a chocolate cookie as a gift. The customer is always excited to see I provided something extra and they will continue to be a repeat customer. A small gesture, but it sure works great.

    Thanks for continuing to share your thoughts on Influence. It continues to be applicable to so many aspects of our lives.


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