Psychology of Marketing: Under-Promise and Over-Deliver


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As it turns out, consumers are pretty simple. If their purchase does what its sellers said it would do, they’re happy. If it doesn’t, they’re disappointed.

This harkens back to the popular idea that happiness = reality – expectations.  If reality exceeds what you had hoped for, you’re content even if other people think the outcome was bad. For instance, say you expected a 60 on a physics exam in college. Upon receiving a 70, you’re overjoyed (or at least satisfied) — despite it being still a C — because it’s better than you thought you would do. Happiness, then it would seem, is relative rather than absolute.


Admittedly, this is a vast oversimplification of human behavior. However, it’s been shown that in marketing, this is typically the case. According to one study, customer satisfaction is inversely proportional to customer expectations.

It would seem then, that it’s a good idea to boost happiness by lowering expectations. But of course, this is not how our society and economy work. We constantly demand bigger and better, so much so that “new” and “improved” are some of the most effective words in marketing. In addition, consumers have been building up knowledge of what they should expect in certain situations since birth. So unless you’re the producer of the equivalent of the first personal computer, you have little to no control over what their expectations are.

Instead, promise the basics and then some – everything you can guarantee delivery on, and be consistent about it. Consumers are simple, remember? But under the hood, keep working. No one ever became successful on 100% effort; it’s the extra 10% that are going to boost the consumer’s “reality” high enough to make happiness positive. In other words, under-promise what you know you can do, and then over-deliver.

As Adrian Swinscoe at says, “Unless you have perfect delivery in all areas of your business, having a strategy based on delight or “wow” is not likely to pay as well as a strategy that eliminates disappointment first.”

Interestingly, this principle has been shown to apply to attraction as well. Viewers of TV shows, potential romantic partners, and so on like people who are initially cold and aloof, but eventually show that they’re soft and likeable on the inside. A classic study by eminent psychologist Elliot Aronson showed that people like the people who turned around more than even people who were friendly from the start. People who play “hard to get” are implicitly employing this tactic.

There is, nevertheless, one further problem with the tactic of under-promising and over-delivering: it’s impossible for outsiders to measure. Of course, marketers who employ this strategy would set off a PR disaster if they admitted to underselling to create this satisfaction effect. Thus, it remains to be seen how prevalent this is in the industry.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Anqi Cong
Anqi Cong is a student at Carnegie Mellon University studying Business Administration with a minor in Computer Science. She is a content marketer at Insightpool, a company that allows brands to deliver "sincerity at scale" using its social engagement automation software. Anqi enjoys social media, coding up video games, writing, and dry humor.


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