Marketing hype: The art of planned surprises

Printer-friendly versionSend to friendPDF version

It will not take too long until the first rumors emerge, and unclear grainy pictures circulate. Well informed sources will report about orders placed with suppliers and vague patent applications will be interpreted as hints on forthcoming innovations. In fact, the new iPhone will be presented somewhere early in fall. It is not to astonishing that the company works on it, but what new features will be unveiled in what some perceive as a new stage in the battle between American ingenuity versus Asian industriousness, designers in a face-off against engineers, an idea workshop competing against a mass manufacturer?
The hints of information, sparse and limited to specialty publications in the beginning, will grow in quantity and spread onto the front-pages after a date for the presentation is set. The fever pitch will reach its climax when a senior executive takes the stage to present a tiny object which is fortunately shown greatly enlarged in the background. Now the named product, subject to numerous speculations previously is now official, and those design details heatedly discussed before are evident and on front stage for the world to see.
But already a few hours later some soberness will set in when selected journalists are allowed to test the first samples of a product which will be available to the general public only weeks or months later. The journalists will touch the samples with expert fingers and with competing models in mind. Already the comparison brings relativism around whatever outstanding features the new phone may have, basically it is one smart-phone more. The next day critical to enthusiastic product reviews will appear in all major media outlets – a week later the event will be close to forgotten and the phone itself must prove its worth to consumers in the marketing battles to come.
No company was as successful in creating "hype" like Apple Inc.. Hype means to make people excited about a product and attract their attention at least for a short moment in time. Apple did so occasionally by introducing genuinely new product classes, but, in addition, hype was also created by the product cycle and the form of presentation.
Leadership has changed, but the tradition continues. Once a year the wizard would show the results of his workshop and offer them as products to the eagerly waiting public. If the color of the smoke coming out of the chimney and the resulting noises of work to be heard during the year were intentional hints or just unavoidable byproducts of manufacturing remains an open question. However, these observable side-effects of creation inspired speculation and thereby certainly helped to hype the moment of revelation. Even when quiet, the villagers interpreted the silence as periods of creativity and asked themselves what the wizard and his helpers might think about.
Etymologically the verb “hype” developed fairly late in the late 1930s and is linked to the old Greek prefix “-hyper” indicating “excess” and “exaggeration”. However, the term “excess” in hyping does not imply that there is too much information in general, but that there is a lot of soft, uncertain and unreliable information circulating while hard and decisive facts are missing. This soft data is comprised of expectations, hopes, and speculations. It is the confrontation with the hard facts which lets the balloon of rumors and speculations implode and unmask what only in hindsight was clearly a hype. The researchers from Gartner Research speak in their “hype cycle” of “inflated expectations” which is followed by a “through of disappointment”.
In fact, hype is not without dangers for those wanting to thrive commercially and for those in politics and business. Disappointment is not inevitable, but the social momentum spurred by soft data can create in addition to hopes and expectations also decisions which do not pass the test of time. All data should be viewed with some skepticism, but especially soft data can be wrong, misleading or manipulated. Much as hyped stocks have ruined millions of investors in their drastic fall; hyped ideas have lost millions in their shortsightedness and the ideological blindness they created.
Fortunately hype in marketing spurs interest much more than real commitment. The decision is based on the facts, not the hype before. But as long as the hype is going on, the vague information finds a congenial partner in human curiosity. From the magicians of Medieval markets to high-tech gadgets today, people like novelties in their life, be it as a distraction or as a promise of a better future. Authors like R. Keith Sawyer see curiosity as the main driver of human progress. Curiosity drives the quest for inventions and innovations and provides fun, play and adventure on the way. Of course, speculations can be a burden and to have to engage in them is a significant stressor, but when it comes to a positive event one is only loosed linked to the greatest joy which lies in its anticipation.
To create hype as a marketing strategy consequently builds on the word-of-mouth in its modern form by seeding news in social networks. Word-of-mouth has the advantage of being traditionally vague and rumors are hard to pin down with regard to their origin and quality. In marketing and with regard to new products such vagueness is a plus. Even if the actual product may disappoint, this disappointment is a minor one and confined to those making their living with it or in the ecosystem around it. The ordinary customer will soon forget and later just choose the better alternative.
To keep momentum, hype must keep a balance between curiosity and patience, too early is as bad as too late. Nobody is excited about the opening ceremony of the next Olympic games currently. Other big sports events like the world cup take place in between and the opening is three years away. The hype will start a year before for sports enthusiasts and slowly encompass nearly everyone on this world. The event itself on Aug., 5, 2016, has a good chance to become the television event of the year. The opening of the London Olympics last year was watched by 900 mn people.
Especially on the background of fancy products and mega-events like the Olympics creating hype seems legitimate and even a good thing. Its unfolding gives people a topic to connect with, inspires discussions and provides an opportunity to share old and create new ideas. Whatever the new smart-phone or a ceremony may actually bring around, in essence, one hopes that it will be something positive enriching the lives of consumers and audiences. At least currently nobody expects from his smart-phone a ride to the moon. That may be the hype of the distant future.