Winnie Kao leads marketing communications at Flite, an advertising startup funded by Sequoia Capital. The thoughts here are her own.


"This is intentional": Setting Customer Expectations for Unexpected Product Features

When you do something differently from what your customers are used to, you need to address the issue directly. You need to let them know that your new feature is intentional, not an oversight due to negligence or bad design. This is especially true if your new feature is something that can be misinterpreted.

For example, let’s look at the tea category. Consumers are used to seeing tea bags with a string and tag. If you don’t have a string or tag on yours, what might they think?

"This company is so cheap. They don’t even put string on their tea bags. This is not the premium tea experience I’m looking for."

Customers might:

  • Complain about quality control
  • Criticize your bad product design
  • Feel frustrated that your product lacks what all other competitors in the category have


How do you solve this problem? By proactively communicating that what you’re doing is intentional.

This tea company proactively addresses potential misunderstandings or questions, by adding a message directly on the package flap that customers see right before they take out a tea bag. (If you put it on the side of the box, customers might miss it in the crucial moment right when they are taking out a tea bag.)

"Our unique pillow-style tea bag is the result of our commitment to doing what’s best for the environment. Because these natural fiber tea bags don’t need strings, tags, staples or individual wrappers, we’re able to save more than 3.5 million pounds of waste from entering landfills every year!"

So now, the customer doesn’t think that the company is cheap or forgetful.

Now they think, "Wow, this brand is really forward-thinking. They care about the environment and have even created packaging that allows them to save millions of pounds of waste, without impacting my tea experience. I didn’t really need the string or tag anyway. Why don’t all brands get rid of those pesky things?”

You’ll see hotels use this type of messaging when they offer guests the option to re-use towels. They position the action as reducing environmental impact to avoid guests thinking that the hotel is simply trying to cut costs, which paints the company in an unsavory light.

Another time when it’s important to say “this is intentional,” is when you have products with subtle variations due to their handmade nature. This is the case for denim, tie dye, hand-painted products, hand-sewn beading on clothes, etc.


Again, the brilliant idea behind this tag from a Rebecca Minkoff purse is that the brand communicates that variations in product quality are intentional. They even tell you to look for differences in color, marks, and grain in the leather, and to notice how the foil embossing fades over time. This goes one step beyond explaining. The brand actually highlights the impending wear-and-tear.

This creates a sense of pride so that each customer feels like her purse is truly hers and will develop with her over time. When the purse does in fact fade, you’re not surprised and angry — you’re excited that this product has grown with you.

This concept applies to products outside of consumer goods and retail. Anytime you have a product feature that is different from the industry norm, or what your brand has traditionally done in the past, you need to make sure customers know that your product decisions are intentional, deliberate, and thoughtful.

Set customer expectations up front. Communicate why you chose to create a product this way and use it as an opportunity to elaborate on your brand decisions.


According to McDonald’s, It Would Take 796 Years For an Employee To Save A Million Dollars


Amidst all the controversy surrounding McDonald’s recently, I almost felt sorry for CEO Don Thompson. Until I realized that he makes $8.7 million per year.

The heavy criticism started in mid-July when McDonald’s offered a budgeting website to teach restaurant employees about financial management. The intent was well-meaning, but it inadvertently proved how difficult it is for workers to live on minimum wage.

Why is this fiasco important for all marketers to think about?

Because every brand has things that they are not necessarily trying to hide, but probably shouldn’t broadcast.

For example, 80% of the ingredients used in US personal care products haven’t been evaluated by the FDA, and some are even banned in Europe. In the electronics industry, companies employ factories crammed with thousands of workers frantically assembling plastic parts to make cell phones.

Are these situations common in their respective industries? Yes. Are they images that CoverGirl or Motorola want to voluntarily publicize? Probably not.

Brands must be strategic about the information they go out of their way to highlight — especially when news can spread virally online.

We can assume that the McDonald’s corporate headquarters is scrambling to figure out how to smooth this over. In the meantime, here are lessons we can learn from what they did wrong.


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Irrelevant and Ridiculous Bus Advertisement


What a great quote about acceptance.

Beauty is about being comfortable in your own skin. It’s about knowing and accepting who you are. — Ellen DeGeneres

Even the design of the ad — the muted olive background, soft white text, scholarly serif font — promotes a feeling of oneness with the world.

So what is this ad for? At first glance, I thought:

  • Healthcare company which values wellness
  • Organic skincare brand
  • Non-profit organization or public service announcement

Nope — none of the above. This is an ad for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA).

This is an ad about buses.

The Ellen DeGeneres quote is interesting, but it has little to do with the product, service, or organization that it stems from. It’s a missed opportunity to reinforce the SFMTA’s purpose or values in the minds of consumers (city residents) who use the service.

One theory for why the SFMTA created the ad is because it didn’t sell the remnant advertising inventory for bus placements. So they decided to put a positive message on the bus real estate.

However, a more relevant message could have been equally positive. Think a message about clean air, the environment, San Francisco community, etc.

I haven’t seen any other ads that indicate that this is a campaign, but if you find examples, please send them my way. I’m curious as to what the other quotes might look like.


Photo credit: Muni metro light rail, SF Examiner


Apple iPod Touch: Is “Funness” a Hit or Miss in the Tagline?


This is a photo of the Apple store window in Union Square, San Francisco. I was on my way to Uniqlo, weaving through crowds of tourists, when the iPod Touch tagline caught my eye:

Engineered for maximum funness.

I’m no fan boy, so the Apple marketing that I’m exposed to is from daily life and normal browsing on the web. In other words, I don’t seek out their products or collateral, but I’ve always thought of the brand as having a clean, simple, timeless aesthetic. So I was surprised to see a kitschy word like “funness,” especially in a tagline that gets prime visibility.

Apple used a similar tagline in fall 2008 for a slimmer version of the iPod Touch, and called it “the funnest iPod ever.”

This current iPod Touch tagline builds on the theme and was introduced in fall 2012.

In terms of naming products, Apple deserves credit for their genius strategy to own words with an “i” in front of them — iPad, iPod, iPhone, etc — basically terms that are instantly identifiable as being from Apple. They also named their ear buds “EarPods,” which is clever. 

With the tagline here, do you think “funness” works or are they trying too hard?