Meaningful gestures such as giving away freebies can help to boost brand engagement and loyalty, an expert has argued.

According to Richard Shotton, head of insight at ZenithOptimedia, positioning offers as gifts – such as handing out freebies – can create a subtle pressure on customers to reciprocate by coming back.

However, he said this approach is used fairly infrequently, since it is less quantifiable than other metrics.

“It’s simple to tally the number of Clubcard points redeemed, harder to quantify additional sales due to reciprocity,” Mr Shotton said. “Hard, but not impossible.”

“Brands that establish controlled test and control areas can ascertain the value of reciprocity.”

Mr Shotton highlighted an experiment carried out in the US 40 years ago as a great example of how this approach can work.

Sociologists Phillip Kunz and Michael Woolcot sent out 578 Christmas cards to random families and measured how many they got in return.

Many of the recipients felt – in Mr Shotton’s words – “obliged to reply”, with one in five of the randomly picked families sending a Christmas card back.

Mr Shotton described this as an impressive result given that response rates to digital ads are around 0.1 per cent.

“Kunz and Woolcott attributed this to the cultural norm of reciprocity – the strong social pressure to return favours,” he said.

Mr Shotton went on to note that the power of reciprocity is not limited to formal experiments, as people’s attitudes to gifts and favours are hugely apparent in how they use language.

For instance, he said the use of “much obliged” as a common alternative to “thank you” unwittingly reveals how they feel about others doing good deeds for them.

Christmas cards and reciprocity: What it means for brands Brand Republic