Not-so-great Expectations

A rather Glassy lady said “I’d rather be pleasantly surprised than fatally disappointed.”

She should have been in marketing.

Marketers and brand managers are in the expectation business. Part of their job entails defining and setting the expectations of their customers or their market. Since expectations are the state of anticipating something, we marketing mavens create the customer’s state anticipation.

When reality doesn’t match what is anticipated, odd and dangerous things occur. If you don’t understand this, just think back to your first blind date.

When defining the expectations you want customers to have, you can aim too low, too high, just right or aim for something entirely different. Only the last two work and the latter is the trickiest, though often most profitable.

Generally speaking, setting customer expectations a little low is a good strategy. Pleasantly surprised people become repeat customers. If their expectations are consistently exceeded, even by small amounts, they become advocates and do a large part of your promotions for you. Some marketers try to set expectations very low, which routinely backfires. First, it drives prospects away, thinking that your product is well below their needs. But when outrageously happy with significantly exceeded expectations, customers are crushingly disappointed when you don’t repeat the feat (this is now known as the iPhone Maps Affect). Market expectations are like mechanical engineering – a little variation in tolerances is OK, but a lot will wreck the machine.

Setting expectation too high directly results in disappointed customers. The larger the gap between the expectations you set and what you deliver, the larger the customer backlash. Indeed, if customer expectations are just slightly above your performance, then most customers will shrug their shoulders and write it off to marketing excess (which, sadly, most people now expect).

Most interesting is where brands set non-product expectations. Take Apple anything. Much has been written and mocked about Apple’s “cool” brand. Apple customer expectations are largely set in their self-image and not in Apple products themselves. Apple is using the customer as the source of customer expectations. Be it the iPod dancing silhouettes, short-supplies of new products to allegedly create fake personifications of excessive demand, or the well-manicured Cult of Jobs, Apple sets an expectation of self-esteem, the peak of Maslow’s infamous hierarchy. What the product does is secondary to how customers feel about themselves using Apple products.

The Apple genius therein is that people don’t like feeling bad about themselves. They do not discount their own sense of self-worth (well, a small number of individuals thrive on such self-destructive behavior, and are marketed to appropriately). Thus Apple addicts rarely find fault with their purchase decision because that decision is firmly anchored in their own self-perception, which remains golden.

Odds are you cannot create a brand so self-centered in consumer psyches that it is as unshakable as Apple’s. But you can set customer expectations just below what you can deliver and then tie your brand to customer emotional motivations, which can be issues of self-image. Doing so will make you feel pretty good about yourself.


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