Be on guard against hype: it can seriously backfire

New media channels mean consumers now have very public ways to air their disappointments when the hype fails to hit the mark.

PR plays a critical role in the launch of new products. Brands need to communicate with their target market through respected independent channels, to inform their customers, as well as generate buzz and excitement.

Last week, one of the world’s most innovative companies, Apple, launched its latest product, the iPad. It’s been billed as the “next big thing” that will change the way we access media forever, and it was unveiled after a month of barely contained excitement from both traditional and new media channels, such as the hugely influential blogger sphere.

Most brands can only dream about being able to generate this much positive PR around the launch of a product, but it does come with its own dangers. For example, sometimes excitement tips over into over-hype and the product fails to live up to the unachievable expectations. Disappointment is inevitable in these cases.

Even though it’s been such a short time since its launch, the iPad is suffering already from an over-hype backlash, with bloggers and tech experts criticising everything from the name to the functionality.

There are interesting parallels between the iPad reaction and the reception to President Barack Obama’s first year in power. He inaugurated under the banner of change for the nation, illustrated not only in his policies but also in his being the first African-American President. It was an inspiring, momentous occasion that ignited hope and optimism in the US.

But people didn’t expect this promised change to be incremental and administered in a measured, normal way. Expectations were for an instant transformation, ignorant of how much energy and time such root and branch reform takes, and how many barriers and challenges the new President would face implementing it.

A year on, and the disappointment felt by those desperate for change is acute. Obama’s failure to live up to the public’s ridiculously high expectations was evident in the recent senate elections, where he suffered a serious defeat and lost a crucial seat.

There’s a lesson here for brands: it’s a fine line between excitement and over-hype. Those that get it right and stay on the positive side of this invisible line benefit hugely.

Going back to Apple, the iPhone is estimated to have sold over 25.5 million units since its launch two and half years ago, according to Apple fans camped overnight and queued round the block to be the first to get their hands on the product. It’s fair to say that excitement played a massive role in engaging consumers and influencing their decision to trade in their old phone and music devices for the iPhone.

Being able to create consumer excitement around a new product or service is a skill indeed. Apple has created a whole army of fiercely loyal brand ambassadors. Their excitement around new Apple products, and perception of the brand as an innovative leader that will help them stay ahead of the technological curve, breeds this loyalty.

Clearly PR isn’t the only tool in the marketers’ toolbox for generating buzz and excitement among consumers, but going back to the old push-pull marketing paradigm, it is certainly a brilliant influencer for new product launches.

But how can a brand stop buzz tipping over into over-hype – and the inevitable fall from grace? Part of the reason Apple has had this dramatic build-up is the way it has guarded all details of the iPad so carefully, not even revealing its name until the last minute. It was a clever tactic to get people excited about a nameless, essentially invisible item, almost like The Emperor’s New Clothes for the 21st century.

While going for the “big reveal” is high impact, it is also high risk. In recent years, we have seen a significant shift in power towards the consumer. Carefully crafted marketing messages now need to be moulded into a conversation to reflect individual consumers’ lifestyles and interests. Social media has given consumers rapid and influential tools to communicate their opinions of a brand or product, good and bad, to a global audience. This is where the potential pitfalls of over-hype can be devastating for a company.

When treading the fine line between excitement and over-hype, brands must engage with both traditional and new channels, to communicate in an open, honest and clear manner. Saying nothing, or saying too much, is an active choice to let influencers and consumers speculate and build hype for themselves. If you are confident in the quality of your product – converse with them.

Susanna Simpson is founder of Limelight Public Relations.

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