How To Disappoint An Audience – by Apple

October 5, 2011

Every battle is won before it is fought.

So said Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese warlord-philosopher and strategist, and Apple proved him right again yesterday.

In Tim Cook’s first public outing as CEO, Apple’s fans were led to expect the much-trumpeted iPhone 5, and they were disappointed. Instead, Apple announced a new iPhone 4S, which has many cool features and is much more powerful than the original iPhone 4, but it looks the same and it’s not a 5.

The immediate reaction was one of disappointment among fans and commentators. A poll showed 81% of respondents were disappointed. The AAPL share price dropped, at one point by up to 5%, although it later recovered, but the market was hit, and a Business Insider article was entitled “Apple’s Disappointing iPhone Kills The Entire Market Comeback”. Jay Yarow said “People were right to feel let down! They didn’t get what they expected.”

Steve Jobs is a hard act to follow by any measure, and all eyes were on Tim Cook’s performance on stage to see if he could match the master. But if his performance was competent enough, the event still disappointed, because expectations had been raised and the event had been hyped, and the substance of the message failed to match the expectation. The BBC reported that “you could sense a great wave of disappointment rolling through the Apple community”.

Now I can hear you saying that Apple never announced that they would release anything called an iPhone 5, not yesterday, not ever. True. But the media speculation was so high in recent weeks that it was almost a fait accompli, and everyone was talking about the event as “the iPhone 5 launch”. TechCrunch announced a very certain “We know the iPhone 5 is being debuted soon.” LoopInsight announced the event as “the iPhone 5 event”. And there had already been plenty of leaks about the new teardrop design of the iPhone 5 which had originally been expected in June, and so they couldn’t possibly delay it any later than October, could they?

So were the media completely wrong to lead people to believe this was going to be the big day? Perhaps. But Apple were wrong to allow it.

I’ve already blogged about how it’s important to raise expectations to a level that’s high enough to make people interested, but not so high that you can’t then meet or exceed them. Apple just got this the wrong way round. To put it crudely, people were expecting a cool new iPhone 5. They got Cards.

That news sites and influential blogs gave people false expectations is certainly Apple’s problem, because what could have been a great event with some cool announcements turned into an event which disappointed people because of what it didn’t say, so it does affect Apple’s image – even if they will still sell shedloads of phones.

It was like going to see Jurassic Park 8 and leaving the cinema disappointed because there was only one small and docile dinosaur. If that’s what you’re expecting, it doesn’t matter how great the cinematography or acting are.

So since the resulting disappointment was Apple’s problem, it should have been Apple’s responsibility to influence expectations beforehand. That’s what PR is there for.

What, then, could Apple have done before the event to set expectations to a level that was high but achievable? Plenty. Here are some ideas.

  1. The event name and invitation. Having detected that people were expecting something unrealistic, they could have set clear expectations in the invitation or even the event name. If the invitation had mentioned something like “You remember the leap forward between the iPhone 3G and the iPhone 3GS? That’s nothing compared to what we’ll be announcing on October 4th” then people would still have expected a lot, but they’d have probably expected an updated 4 series and not a 5. And if a few journalists had received that, they’d have picked up on it and relayed it, and started speculating along the right lines. Instead, on receiving the press release, sites like LoopInsight immediately called it “the iPhone 5 launch”.
  2. A strategic leak. Apple should have realised that the battle was going to be lost unless they reset expectations, so a strategic leak to an influential blog or journalist might have been enough to achieve that. “We’re not calling it an iPhone 5, but it’s still a big step-change from the iPhone 4” might have been enough. Or “The outside is the same as the iPhone 4, but what’s inside is completely new.” Would that steal some of Cook’s thunder (or Schiller’s, as it happens)? Perhaps. But it raises the question “so what’s new inside, in terms of hardware and software, and what will it do for me?” – and that’s the right kind of question for people to speculate about before the event.
  3. A teaser. Imagine a video on the Apple web site, building up to the brand-new phone, and then unveiling what looks like the iPhone 4. Then someone saying “Hold on, that’s just an iPhone 4!” And the answer could come: “It only looks like an iPhone 4. Find out what’s inside on Oct 4.” And then perhaps the new phone’s screen could open one eye invitingly. The slogan “It only looks like an iPhone 4” takes something that people will say anyway, and adds the important word “only” which then raises expectations about what’s inside.

Frankly, there are all sorts of things Apple could have done. Yes, it is in a ‘quiet period’, but if it can make such a major product announcement during a quiet period, it can also set expectations properly. Its failure to do so has rebounded on it, and has caused the first perceived failure of Tim Cook’s tenure.

It just goes to show that it’s not always the delivery that lets a presentation down: it’s often mis-setting or misunderstanding the audience’s expectations. And with all it could have done to set expectations right, Apple can’t go blaming the media. Worse, when you willingly allow so many journalists to bark up the wrong tree, they end up getting angry at being made to look like fools, and they could decide to turn on Apple, which is no longer the cool underdog that inspired cult status, and which could end up portrayed as the next big corporate villain surprisingly quickly if they are not careful.

It’s a pity, because the iPhone 4S seems pretty cool, and deserves to be judged on what it is, not criticised for what it is not. And giving away the iPhone 3GS is a market-shaking announcement. If only they’d ensured expectations were set right, perhaps people would be talking about a successful debut for Cook, not a disappointment.

Every battle is won before it is fought. Tim Cook didn’t lose this one through his performance on the stage. Basically his PR people led him into an ambush even Jobs wouldn’t have escaped unhurt.

One more thing…

Apple’s product launches are quite long. This one had a lot of padding. The more stuff you announce at the same time, the lower the overall impact. If Jobs got one thing wrong in his most recent launches, this was it. One hour is enough, half an hour is better. Apple has absolutely no business giving air-time at an iPhone launch to an underwhelming app like Cards, or a few new skins for an iPod Nano. They can launch those with one of their regular emails.

BBC News Online’s Rory Cellan-Jones called it “an extremely long and ponderous event“. And many of Jobs’ events fell into that same trap.

When he launched the iPad2, he had three key messages. It’s lighter, it’s thinner, and it’s faster. That was all it needed – but it went on a long time. If Apple’s agenda yesterday had been to get three key messages across, it would have been these:

  • Here’s a fantastic new iPhone 4S with Siri and iOS5
  • We’re giving the iPhone 3GS away for free
  • iCloud is launching next week (I was wondering when it would finally launch, so it’s good to mention it)

And quite frankly, they should not have felt the need to add any more subjects to the agenda. I’d allow them a brief intro (a brief one) talking about some of their recent successes. But that’s all.

Lessons for presenters

  1. Delivery isn’t everything. Yes, it’s important, but your message is just as important as the way you deliver it.
  2. Understand your audience and their expectations.
  3. Set (or reset) expectations to a level where you can meet or exceed them. If you can’t or won’t do that, it will become your problem, so make it your responsibility.
  4. Choose 1-3 key messages and work to communicate them memorably. Cut out anything that doesn’t help deliver those key messages.
  5. Be brief, as FDR would have said.

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