Excessive Expectations
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Marketing May 5, 2014

Exces­sive Expectations

How trum­pet­ing your prod­uct as the absolute best might set you up for a fall.

Yevgenia Nayberg​

Based on the research of

Jingjing Ma

Neal J. Roese

Con­sid­er Red Bull, the ener­gy drink syn­ony­mous with winged car­toon char­ac­ters, Aus­tri­ans who dive from space — and high-fly­ing, mus­cu­lar dunk machine Blake Grif­fin of the Los Ange­les Clip­pers. When Red Bull cast the pro­fes­sion­al bas­ket­ball play­er in a com­mer­cial in late 2013, the footage inter­spersed shots of the for­ward shoot­ing around on a black­top court with shots of Grif­fin describ­ing how it feels when fans cheer him on, or explain­ing the work eth­ic instilled by his par­ents. Nowhere in that adver­tise­ment does Red Bull say its ener­gy drink is supe­ri­or to oth­er ener­gy drinks on the mar­ket. Indeed, Red Bull nev­er even men­tions its taste.

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But con­struct­ing adver­tis­ing for an ener­gy drink based on what car­toons do or how celebri­ty ath­letes train could be pret­ty smart, main­ly because it push­es peo­ple prone to thor­ough­ly weigh­ing options out of what is called the max­i­miz­ing mind-set. If you’re in this max­i­miz­ing mind-set, no mat­ter how good the prod­uct is, you’re going to be unsat­is­fied with it if it’s any­thing less than the most amaz­ing thing ever,” says Neal J. Roese, a pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing at the Kel­logg School of Man­age­ment. It’s a hid­den dan­ger that mar­keters need to be aware of.”

Roese’s research, con­duct­ed with Jingjing Ma (a doc­tor­al can­di­date in mar­ket­ing at the Kel­logg School), shows that peo­ple dis­posed toward max­i­miz­ing will turn sour on a prod­uct if they learn it was not their best avail­able option. It goes beyond sim­ple com­par­a­tive analy­sis of dif­fer­ent items on the mar­ket: Coca-Cola or Pep­si, Apple or Sam­sung, Red Bull or Amp. Peo­ple in the max­i­miz­ing mind-set com­pare prod­ucts with the added, spe­cif­ic goal to get the most ide­al out­come. Mar­ket­ing man­agers keen on adver­tis­ing their prod­ucts as the best alter­na­tive should think twice, as the max­i­miz­ing mind-set increas­es feel­ings of regret and dis­sat­is­fac­tion in peo­ple who believe they were tak­ing the opti­mum deal only to be dis­ap­point­ed after­ward. And if max­i­miz­ing peo­ple are not con­vinced their pur­chase is sec­ond to none, they are liable to ditch, and then switch, brands and products.

Choose Wise­ly

Across sev­en exper­i­ments, Ma and Roese found that peo­ple in the max­i­miz­ing mind-set make deci­sions by work­ing hard­er and search­ing more wide­ly and thor­ough­ly to find the best out­come. What’s more, Ma and Roese deter­mined that peo­ple in a max­i­miz­ing mind-set are also like­ly to feel neg­a­tive affect, such as regret or dis­ap­point­ment, about their deci­sion if they learn they did not pick or receive the best item.

In one exper­i­ment, for instance, Ma and Roese primed sev­er­al hun­dred par­tic­i­pants to adopt either a max­i­miz­ing mind-set (by answer­ing ques­tions about which some­one or some­thing is the best”) or a sat­is­fic­ing mind-set (by answer­ing ques­tions about whether some­one or some­thing was good enough”). A third sub­set of par­tic­i­pants was not primed with ques­tions at all. Then par­tic­i­pants were pre­sent­ed with five prod­ucts and told to choose one to poten­tial­ly receive as a gift. (Twen­ty-five win­ners would be select­ed after the study.) The prices of the prod­ucts were not giv­en, although par­tic­i­pants were told they could find more infor­ma­tion about each prod­uct by click­ing on the prod­uct names.

Once the par­tic­i­pants had made their choic­es, the prod­ucts’ mar­ket prices were revealed. Par­tic­i­pants learned that, should they be select­ed as a win­ner, they would receive an Ama­zon gift card for the exact amount of the prod­uct they had cho­sen. (Because the major­i­ty of par­tic­i­pants did not select the most expen­sive prod­uct, this should have elicit­ed regret.) Final­ly, all par­tic­i­pants were asked how sat­is­fied they were with their decision.

The researchers found that par­tic­i­pants assigned to the max­i­miz­ing con­di­tion not only clicked on more prod­uct names to find more infor­ma­tion — to thor­ough­ly weigh their alter­na­tives — but also felt greater regret and low­er sat­is­fac­tion” about their choice than par­tic­i­pants in the oth­er group.

Keep It In Bounds

On the whole, max­i­miz­ing mind-sets — and the promis­es that trig­ger them — are prob­a­bly bad news for brands. But is there any way for adver­tis­ers to use such a dis­po­si­tion to their advan­tage? Anoth­er of Ma and Roese’s stud­ies sug­gests a way for mar­keters: offer a large assort­ment of prod­ucts, and make it easy and enjoy­able for cus­tomers to find the one they will like best.

If I’m start­ing off with a big prod­uct assort­ment, it might be OK or less dan­ger­ous for me to have some mes­sag­ing that men­tions max­i­miz­ing,” Roese says. I have more of a chance of hit­ting the right choice for that person.”

In this exper­i­ment, hun­dreds of par­tic­i­pants were pre­sent­ed six types of pop­u­lar U.S. snacks — Dori­tos chips, Chee­tos, and the like — and told to pick the one they like most. Half were giv­en their cho­sen snack; the oth­er half were told their cho­sen snack had run out, and were then giv­en anoth­er, ran­dom­ly cho­sen snack. Par­tic­i­pants then tast­ed the snack and were final­ly asked if they would trade in their snack for one of six sim­i­lar snacks made by a Cana­di­an brand. Peo­ple in the max­i­miz­ing mind-set who did not receive their cho­sen snack opt­ed to switch more than two-thirds of the time. But max­i­miz­ers who received the snack they want­ed switched to a new snack less than half the time.

The more expe­ri­en­tial you can make the prod­uct, the hap­pi­er peo­ple are.” — Neal J. Roese

If peo­ple were able to get the one thing they picked out of an assort­ment, to achieve what they real­ly want­ed in that sit­u­a­tion, the effect of max­i­miz­ing went away,” says Roese. With a small­er assort­ment of prod­ucts, com­pa­nies run the risk of rais­ing buy­ers’ expec­ta­tions and dis­ap­point­ing some­one. But if you can tap into people’s pref­er­ences and hit the sweet spot of what they real­ly want, the issues of max­i­miz­ing are going to go away for you,” he says.

A select few man­u­fac­tur­ers do not even need to offer a large selec­tion in order to hit cus­tomers’ sweet spot.” The rel­e­vant exam­ple is Apple and its iPhone. While Ma and Roese observe that mal­func­tions in the iPhone will lead to pop­u­lar out­cry from its users, Apple nonethe­less has posi­tioned itself well by hav­ing a prod­uct of great qual­i­ty. They use a much small­er prod­uct assort­ment but real­ly empha­size the qual­i­ty,” says Roese. While hic­cups with iPhone tech­nol­o­gy do hap­pen, the phones rarely suf­fer defects, and buy­ers feel redeemed for pur­chas­ing an iPhone.

Mak­ing Mem­o­ries

Per­haps the most prac­ti­cal appli­ca­tion of Ma and Roese’s research, how­ev­er, comes in the man­ner in which com­pa­nies choose to tai­lor their adver­tis­ing: whether com­pa­nies empha­size their prod­ucts as the best out there or con­nect with buy­ers through a dif­fer­ent means. This is where such com­pa­nies as Red Bull have done things cor­rect­ly, Roese says.

What Red Bull adver­tis­es is an expe­ri­ence. It looks to cre­ate a mem­o­ry for peo­ple watch­ing its com­mer­cials and see­ing its adver­tise­ments and then tries to con­nect any feel­ings evoked to its product.

The more expe­ri­en­tial you can make the prod­uct, the hap­pi­er peo­ple are,” Roese says. Expe­ri­en­tial pur­chas­es push peo­ple out of a max­i­miz­ing mind-set.”

Tak­ing mate­ri­al­is­tic items and push­ing them into the realm of expe­ri­ence will push buy­ers away from com­par­ing with sim­i­lar mod­els and give a brand a spe­cial glow,” he says. This is why Red Bull uses a star U.S. bas­ket­ball play­er in its com­mer­cials. Peo­ple buy the expe­ri­ence, lit­er­al­ly and figuratively.

Unless a com­pa­ny has a gang­buster prod­uct, what adver­tis­ing and mar­ket­ing man­agers must do to mit­i­gate the max­i­miz­ing mind-set is shy away from over­ly boast­ful adver­tis­ing. Talk up the assort­ment size of a par­tic­u­lar type of prod­uct with­in an over­all brand — per­haps a man­u­fac­tur­er of cof­fee brew­ers touts the num­ber of brew­ers avail­able for pur­chase, instead of claim­ing its brew­ers pro­duce the finest tast­ing cups of cof­fee. Or con­nect with buy­ers by leav­ing them with a mem­o­ry of what the prod­uct is and how they might use it themselves.

Roese sums up the find­ings for mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sion­als as sim­ply this: Don’t make bro­ken promises.”

Featured Faculty

Neal J. Roese

John L. and Helen Kellogg Professor of Marketing, and Professor of Psychology, Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences

About the Writer

Andrew Zaleski is a Philadelphia-based journalist and reporter.

About the Research

Ma, Jingjing, and Neal Roese. 2014. “The Maximizing Mind-Set.” Journal of Consumer Research.

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