Thoughts & Notions

Managing Consumers’ Expectations

A brand is an experience that lives at the intersection of promise and expectation. That promise can either be overt (made by the organization) or implied (made by third party, such as the media). Both manage consumers’ expectations. When consumers’ expectations aren’t met, stocks go down, products sit on store shelves and the brand comes tumbling after. Such is the case with the launch of Apple’s iPhone 4s.

Apple makes outstanding products and has perhaps the world’s strongest brand. Competitors chase Apple’s innovative products and throughout the world people reference Apple as the poster child for Branding, Marketing, Innovation, Product Development, Pricing Strategy, etc… The list goes on and on. But the failure in the iPhone 4s isn’t an issue with Marketing, Innovation, Product Development or Pricing Strategy. It was a failure to meet consumers’ expectations.

This is the problem with brands. The truth is, brands can’t be managed. The only thing we can manage is consumers’ expectations. And this time Apple got it wrong.

We’re sure that Apple will do quite well in the long-run. They’ll likely sell a record number of iPhones. After all, FREE has historically been a great motivator! Everyone will update to the iOS5, many will sign up for iCloud and everyone will love Siri (we’ve been using the Siri app for some time. It’s great!).

But, what if the name and physical design were different? These would signal change, and in today’s technology obsessed world, they would signal “better.” Both the iPhone 4s’ name and physical design tell us that not much has changed. This is similar to the automotive industry where a new body style equates to a “new” car. We equate the new design with innovation. It triggers our mind to look for what’s new, better, more advanced. The same old name, the same old body style, these are signals that it’s the same old thing.

The issue here is that we, the consumers, expected the unexpected and we got what we deserved. There was a great weight on Apple’s now Chief Executive Officer, Tim Cook’s shoulder. To Impress this crowd he would have had to have introduced, not just something better, but something different. After all, we were expecting the unexpected and we got a better version of the same. This is the problem when “the consumer owns the brand.” We always seem to disappoint ourselves.

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28 Responses to “Managing Consumers’ Expectations”

  1. ken peters says:

    Apple is one of those brands that could easily be crushed under the weight of its own greatness. But, I'm not sure it's time to start writing their epitaph just yet.

    Perhaps the new phone isn't a giant leap forward, but so what? Not every iteration has to be. Last time they launched a phone the antenna didn't work properly, and that was a real shock to the brand ecosystem. Apple simply doesn't make things that don't work ingeniously, right? They weathered that storm, they'll survive a less-than-groundbreaking next-gen version of the phone.

    But, long-term, your point is well made. With Jobs having stepped aside the brand will have to double down to meet their core promises and expectations. They are in the enviable position of not merely leading a category, but rather "being" the category. However, that's also their Achilles heel. They aren't a scrappy upstart anymore. They're no longer David, they are Goliath. They have to impress now more than ever, and their minimal, aluminum, sleek aesthetic is even beginning to bore me.

    • blackcoffee says:


      We're NOT writing Apple off, just calling out their misstep. This would have been except able under Job's rein, but as the incoming CEO Cook will be held to a ridiculous standard.

      Personally, we think a new name or updated case would have made for a huge shift in expectations.

      Thanks for sharing!

      Mark Gallagher
      Brand Expression®

  2. ken peters says:

    I understand, but I'm not sure it really was a misstep. Perhaps, in a sense, it helps the brand by pulling consumers back down to earth and reminding us that not every single launch is going to change the world. They could never live up to that, and I don't think they should try. When consumer expectations become unrealistic the brand probably should rein people in and reestablish the benchmark. It gets dangerous when a brand cedes too much control to consumers. The brand needs to set the pace.

    Remember, Jobs' philosophy has always been not to ask people what they want but to tell them what they want. I'm poorly paraphrasing a quote of his, there. That's sort of what Apple did today, perhaps.

  3. Agreed, however I think Apple's been mismanaging customer expectations for years. They've gotten a pass from most people because they've always surpassed user expectations; until now.

    They could have told everyone this update was going to be a update to the iPhone 4; but everyone was expecting the iPhone 5 – Mostly because the iPhone 4 is falling behind the competition. No NFC, no LTE – Come on.

    Anyway, I'm going to get an android now – this launch just re-enforced that the iPhone 5 won't be coming soon enough to replace my screwed-up iPhone. Who knows, maybe now I'll shift from having a BIG preference for IOS to having one for Android.

    Bad move Apple.

    • blackcoffee says:


      I'm a car guy and I get criticized all the time for mentioning the specific model number, because to most people think "a BMW is a BMW." And that's going to be the case here. Many people will download the new operating system and that will satisfy the "new phone" urge. Simply put apple failed to provide the signals that tell consumers that they need a new phone and tell other that those people got a new phone.

      There are a lot of great phones out there. Enjoy your android.

      Thanks for commenting!

      Mark Gallagher
      Brand Expressionist®

  4. @apowerpoint says:

    As I tell various audiences 'a brand is an emotional short cut to a decision' and this is a paraphrase of Chris Anderson's definition that a brand is a proxy for information. Apple has got that part down pat. In contrast, for mere mortals 'marketing is the alignment of solutions and needs to everyone's mutual benefit' which takes insights and research. It is here that Apple has embarked on a unique course – figuring out what we want when we can't articulate it. Then delivering. As noted above the gap between expectations (iPhone 5) and actuality (iPhone 4S) is either a temporary issue – like the commotion over naming a product the iPad – or a serious misstep. Way too soon to tell the difference.

    • blackcoffee says:

      We agree that a brand is an emotional short cut. So, the message here is the new phone is a better version than the old phone.

      We're not saying that this is the first nail in Apple's coffin, or that they didn't make the right financial move. What we are saying is that the promise didn't meet expectations. So to quote
      Public Enemy "Don't believe the hype."

      Thanks for sharing your view. We'll have to pick up this conversation a year from now ; )

      Laura Savard
      Brand Expressionist®

  5. Basically the phone is a hardware upgrade. And to that point, a very significant one. A point that seems to being missed in the flood of 'disappointment' sentiment circulating around. And the move to integrated passive location? That is huge(!!), but again ….."aww we didn't get" …….get….get what exactly?? Something that "looks new". That is probably what the 'disappointment' is all about.

    Ok so now let's address the 'disappointment'. Expectation, it's no small word in Appleville.

    In the climate where you have tons of people who's job it is to only report on Apple, the biblical sized fanboy culture, and the tidal wave of media attention paid to everything they do, small and Apple really REALLY don't mix. In this climate, is expectation really ever going to be 'manageable'? Well, in one way yes and in another way no.

    How exactly would they have managed these expectations without affecting sales of this product (don't forget the negative attention after iphone4 and the problems associated with that device)? What would they say? "Yo everybody, get ready for a product that isn't the iphone 5 yet!" Can you really manage expectations in the massive monster that is the Apple media ecosystem? What would the message be exactly? Can someone take a crack at answering that?? Serious, please try it, I double dog dare ya.

    So as I see it, the only options available are/were: 1. re-dress the chassis so they could actually say it's an iphone 5 and appease the masses or 2. not have released it and made the huge jump later to the next generation phone they undoubtably are and have been working on for sometime. If option 2 was the case, revenue ain't coming in for a while. Thus, 2 = no option. So what of option 1? Well that was just stupid not to do frankly and that imho is where the mistake came in, not in managing impossible expectations.

    This of course is speculative but I have a hunch it's a pretty good guess after the 'hardware' issues that plagued the iphone4 release.

    It is what it is, a mid-stream release. Deal with it. Oh and btw, the hardware advancements are pretty significant, it's just doesn't come in a new pretty package. Awwwww poor everybody :(

    …….and in summary, it's just a piece of super duper hardware that runs anew OS. That is a message that is almost uncommunicable. The problem was in the actual release itself, the product, not in the expectations mgmt dept.

    This doesn't even damage the brand imho unless you watch the stock market and we all know how brilliant those asses are.

    • blackcoffee says:


      To your point, re-dressing the chassis and calling it iPhone 5? Hmm… New name + new look = new product. Sounds like the iPad2. Actually, it sounds exactly like the iPad2! And that worked! Tens of thousands of people upgraded, selling their original iPads, or passing them along to friends or family members and thus growing the number of iOS users (market share) and app store customers (revenue).

      The issue here is that when people see the same product with the same name, often their reaction is not to run out and upgrade. The brain says "SAME = SAME, no need to change." However, when that same hardware package is presented with a NEW NAME and a NEW CHASSIS people wonder "what am I missing out on?" A new name and chassis would have been a declaration by Apple that the new phone is deserving of "iPhone 5" status. The expectation is that when Apple says this is new, innovative and a must have, IT IS!

      We always love your comments! Although, I didn't think you'd like the idea of integrated passive location. After all, that's just another way for THE MAN to track your movements!

      Mark Gallagher 
      Brand Expressionist®

  6. Mark you know me too well.

    K so, yes totally, same = same = no action. You are right on with the ipad2 example. Exactly!

    New chassis and call it an iphone5 and this would have been golden. After all what the hell is an iphone 5 anyway but a name / image……..because let's face it, the hardware is the damn phone. Well functionally anyway. That being said, 4s IS actually a considerable upgrade imho.

    RE: passive location. I ONLY didn't like it when FB was suggesting it. Apple is ok. ;p

  7. @jml_bryant says:

    Hi Mark and Laura,

    As an Android user who has been waiting patiently for the iPhone5, yesterday I definitely had an underwhelmed feeling, probably even a feeling of disappointment after hearing the news.

    I whole-heartedly agree with you that a new shell and a new name would make me feel differently than I did.

    I often tell clients and prospects that they can't control their brands, they can only work to intentionally influence or develop them (you say manage). I also feel that there will always be outside influences that are out of a brand's control though. Do you agree?

    All things considered, I'm excited that the wait is finally over. I'm looking forward to upgraded camera as well as Siri. As a soon-to-be first-time iPhone owner, I expect both to be absolutely amazing!

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts,

  8. Steve Jones says:

    Mark – great thoughts. I think you are right, and somewhat brave for calling Apple "out" on their misstep.
    No question they will be fine in the long run, but they didn't do a great job managing expectations on this launch.
    Another issue is that they are historically SO great at exceeding expectations with their product launches.
    Complicating things further is the nagging question… could Steve Jobs have pulled this off with greater impact?

    • blackcoffee says:

      Steve,There's no question Steve Jobs would have presented better. However, I have to say, Laura and I are both a bit taken back by his passing. He put a dent in our universe!Rock On!Mark GallagherBrand Expressionist®

  9. john burke says:

    rip mr jobs

  10. brandconsultantasia says:

    I think Mark and Laura raise a valid point – we were all sitting there with tongues hanging out, waiting for yet another ground breaking offering in the Apple evolution. Sadly for Apple and obviously because of Steve Jobs rapidly worsening health, the promotion of Mr Cook had to be fast tracked and this probably in some way affected our expectations.

    But Apple users are forgiving types and Apple has a lot of goodwill credits in the bank with existing users (plus it is getting harder and harder to use other providers because so much of an Apple users life, revolves around using Apple products) who generate most of their profits.

    I'm using a first generation hacked iPhone (because when it first came out, us irrelevants in Asia weren't allowed to own the phone legally as Apple hadn't bothered to negatiate terms with Asian carriers). I was hoping for an iPhone 5 but it didn't come so I'll get an iPhone 4s.

    The only perception I have is that it is too much trouble to migrate to an android phone and until they invest in frontliners who have the skills to sell an Android phone to me and help me integrate it into my life – the way the apple sales person did 13 years ago when I switched to Apple, I'll continue to use mac kit.

    • blackcoffee says:

      Marcus,We fully agree that Apple has an adoring public and a tremendous amount of good will! Our issue here is how key signals, such as the name and chassis styling, manage our expectations as to whether the new phone is NEW, or just a slight update. The hardware is truly different, yet given the virtually identical names and cases, Apple has (in our opinion) done a poor job of managing consumers' expectations on this launch.It may look like we're picking on Apple here, but this was simply a great example of how humans are hardwired to group similar things together and call them the same.Thanks for sharing ; )Laura SavardBrand Expressionist®Sent from my iPad

  11. brandconsultantasia says:

    Results matter and the iPhone 4S has taken orders for 1,000,000 units. When it was launched, the iPhone 4, a major ugrade took orders for 600,000 units.

    Maybe it is the techies and gadget fans who were disapointed. But the expectations of the consumers (who pay the bills) don't seem too affected.

    • blackcoffee says:


      The numbers are amazing! According to the Wall Street Journal, Sprint has committed to buy $20 billion in iPhones over the next four years. This is the first time Sprint will carry the iPhone. In addition to this, the 3GS is being offered free with contract. However, we still believe that be it apple or any other company, the name and chassis are core signals in managing consumers' expectations.


      Mark Gallagher
      Brand Expressionist®

  12. Vicky says:

    Don't you think there is a huge difference in between a New product development and Innovation. you cannot do innovation all the time. But you can develop a new product by simply changing few features just to extend Ur existing brand into the new market.
    As in this case i feel this iPhone 4s was for a new market to include more customers' under their umbrella.

    • blackcoffee says:


      Thanks for taking the time to comment! We agree that there is a difference between new product development and innovation. The former is often evolutionary, while the latter is revolutionary.

      Our point here is not to say that the new phone is a bad product, but rather that the name and chassis are synonymous with "old" phone and do not cause the brain to ask "What changed?" Rather, they tell the brain that not much has changed. Here, the change in brand identity did not reflect the degree of change within the product offering.

      While speaking with an employee at the Apple store, I asked who the typical iPhone 4s customer was. She said that most were either upgrading from the iPhone 3G (or 3Gs) or were new customers (the iPhone 4s being their first iPhone). She also said that of those upgrading from the iPhone 4, few were willing to do so unless they were eligible for subsidized pricing. As it turns out, this was similar to the launch of the iPhone 3Gs.

      Do all products need to be innovative? We think not. Should a change in brand identity directly reflect the degree of change in the product. We believe it should.


      Mark Gallagher
      Brand Expressionist®

  13. Great thoughts Mark.

    Apple and many other companies are having problems with mismanagement of customer's expectations. The good thing about Apple is that although their latest product didn't meet what is expected by their consumers, the company remains strong more than ever.

    ~ Blake

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