Why and What People Expect
When a customer walks into a McDonald’s, they expect a certain kind of experience no matter what city, state or country they are in. Depending on that individual’s personal opinion of McDonald’s, the appreciation of that experience may vary, but most of the time they can expect a moderately clean restaurant with a familiar menu, the ever-present smell of french fries and a bathroom that requires no purchase to use. Cultivating consistency can be one of the most difficult achievements for a brand, however, it is the most important piece in building a reputation consumers can rely on.
After all, do consumers really know the difference between a serif or sans serif font? Do they understand color theory? Do they care? Honestly, most do not. But consumers do know when something has changed.
When studying communication, there is a concept called Expectancy Violation Theory which teaches that each individual has a set of expectations for how different interactions will go. If that expectation is “violated” in a favorable way or if their expectation was simply met, it typically means they will look at that experience as positive. On the other hand, if they feel their expectations were not met they will likely leave the experience with a negative outlook. It’s a simple concept, but it explains why consumers behave the way they do when faced with brands and the way they communicate. If a consumer interacts with a brand in-store, they will expect a similar interaction online. Meaning if your brand looks completely different at the shelf than it does on Instagram, your consumer may not initially recognize the product or get confused as to what they are actually buying. They may feel the product is difficult to research or find in the future, which can result in the loss of a consumer. After all, if one brand can’t get its story straight and make the buyer happy, there are plenty of other brands that can. Essentially, those small details the creative team constantly stresses, like fonts, colors and tone of voice, are actually quite important.
Creative teams realize that to many, a font may seem trivial. After all, do consumers really know the difference between a serif or sans serif font? Do they understand color theory? Do they care? Honestly, most do not. But consumers do know when something has changed. Hearken back to any time Facebook has changed its timeline layout—there’s typically outrage. Fonts get bigger or smaller, some things that were bold aren’t bold anymore and Aunt Gracie is calling the youngest member of the family wondering if she’s been hacked. To simplify, Aunt Gracie’s expectations were “violated” and she’s not happy about it. She’s probably feeling frustrated, confused and may even threaten to quit Facebook. As time goes on she will become more used to the new layout and her expectations will reset. However, not every brand has the opportunity or luxury to gradually reset with its customers. For smaller or new-to-the-scene products, creating a consistent message and experience across all platforms and channels is essential to survival. Meaning, yes, that font the designer keeps begging to be used is important.
Does this mean that brands should never change and simply do the same thing over and over again? Absolutely not. Consistency does not equal sameness. In fact, a brand that has been created with a solid set of brand standards can use these as a guide to inform future campaigns and branding efforts. Take Domino’s Pizza as an example. For years they had set a low bar in terms of consumer expectations. Years of not listening to consumers created consistency, but not the kind of consistency a brand actually wants. Domino’s didn’t go through a major rebrand or even change their color palette. Instead they changed the interactions with their customers, cleaned up their stores and adjusted their recipes based on real-time feedback. It was still the Dominos consumers grew up with and knew, and yet it wasn’t. They renewed what people could expect from the brand—they created an experience. By “violating” consumers’ set of negative expectations with positive experiences they fundamentally changed their brand without changing their branding.
There’s a reason McDonald’s famous golden arches beckon consumers on long road trips. Whether it’s a desperate search for food or a bathroom, McDonald’s has cultivated a consistent image and experience for more than 60 years. People know exactly what to expect when they walk through those doors. Over countless campaigns, theme song rewrites, and trendy menu adjustments, McDonald’s still feels like McDonald’s. Brands need to create experiences and branding that consumers will gravitate toward and rely on every time they use the product. So, while the average consumer may not know the name of your font, it plays a large part in their ability to identify who the brand is and what to expect from it. As the saying goes, “consistency is key.”