Product Titles and Customer Expectations

Published by Colin Finkle on

What you label your product will set what your customers expect.

Abstract | Executive Summary | TL;DR
A product label is what you name your product in to communicate to customers what they are buying. The product label sets the customer’s expectations.

Some industries have set product labels that rank in a hierarchy, e.g., motel, hotel, resort. Marketers can add adjectives to product labels that modify expectations, e.g., performance tires.

Setting an expectation and not meeting it in reality damages a brand. It is common sense that delivering a level lower than expected is harmful, but it is also wrong to deliver a higher level. People are most comfortable when they receive what they were expecting, and a higher level of service is not repeatable because it becomes a new standard. Instead, we want to aim to meet expectations plus add elements of surprise and delight. Just be honest with your product labels.

5 minute read. 1200 words.

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Managing customer expectations is an integral part of our business, but is uncomfortable to consider. Our customers assemble their expectations from signals from our logo, location, copy, other customers, price point and many other things. One of the first things to set expectations is the title of our product.

In professional life, we are titles. Our titles signal to others what they can expect from us. Our titles progress as people can expect more from us.
Persephone, an accountant out of school, starts with a modest title: clerk. Persephone begins as a clerk, and people expect her to enter and check financial data and not much else. Because she meets and exceeds those expectations, she moves on with her career. Junior accountant, accountant, and controller. Finally, she becomes the Chief Financial Officer of a large food distributor. Now people expect her and her team to maintain cash flow, maintain credit, pay as little tax as possible. A far stretch from her clerk days.

Product labels set similar expectations; the difference is we can choose out product titles. If we label our rental properties as executive suites, we may be able to charge more for it. But the product title is a sword that cuts both ways, and people will have higher expectations of quality.

What is a product label?

Old Spice Fiji Scent Deoderant - product label example

A product label is what you name your product. Not the brand name, but the name that you attach to your product to give the customer a sense of what they are buying.

A product label is what you name your product. Not the brand name, but the name that you attach to your product to give the customer a sense of what they are buying.

A product label is sometimes regulated to be on product packaging in a certain way with particular prominence. Our distribution partners ask us for product titles so they can label it for SKU tags or on an eCommerce page.

LinkedIn's product label is the world's largest professional network, and CafeX labes their product as robotic coffee bars

Product Category Hierarchies

There is a hierarchy of product labels all established industries. If a category is competitive, then the marketers, media, and customers use common names to rank the offerings to set expectations.

1 Hostel
2 Inn
3 Motel
4 Hotel
5 Suites
6 Resort

Air Travel
1 Coach
2 Economy
3 Economy Plus
4 Premium
5 Business Class
6 First Class
7 First Class Cabin
8 Private

1 Entry level
2 Economy
3 Luxury
4 Ultra Luxury
5 Exotic

Digital Cameras
1 Point and Shoot
2 Compact
3 All-In-Ones
4 Prosumer
5 Professional Grade

Brands get into trouble when they label their product as one level in the hierarchy and deliver another. It goes without saying, but: marketing as one level and delivering a lower level makes for poor customer experiences.

I recently had an experience in a place that marketed itself as a resort but was just a hotel. My wife and I were invited to a wedding and decided to extend our stay to three days and two nights based on their website. “One Resort. One Breathtaking Location.” We were looking forward to having a resort take care of us.

But our experience was akin to a hotel, maybe even a motel. The room decor was shabby, one of the lamps didn’t work, we got an unexpected bill after breakfast, our room was never serviced, and maintenance staff was hauling dirty dishes and propane tanks through the dining room. Nothing that would have raised alarm bells in a motel, but made for poor experience at a place that calls itself a “resort.” Call us entitled if you want, but our entitlement came strictly from the label (and the price point, but that’s another matter.)

As we experienced, it damages a brand to name it’s product as a higher tier and then delivers a lower level. We won’t be going back.

But it is also detrimental to promise one tier and deliver something from the level up (more on this later). People feel most comfortable when they receive what they are expecting. Brands are grown when they are honest about their tier of product and delivers that level of experience.

Adding Adjectives to Product Labels

Entrepreneurs and marketer can always add adjectives to our product name. Words like “economy,” “performance,” “premium” and “luxury” are descriptors marketers throw in front of product names all the time. For example economy gas, performance energy bar, premium honey, or luxury furniture.

Coppertone Clearly Sheer vs Coppertone Sport

But adjectives can influence more than just expectations of quality or price point. Adjectives can change customers expectations of the features and benefits of a product. For example, I would expect sport sunscreen not to dissolve in my sweat and get into my eyes while exercising. In contrast, my wife would expect sheer sunscreen not to affect her skin tone.

If we as entrepreneurs and marketers are going to add an adjective to our product label, then we need to understand how that affects our customers’ expectations, and then honestly access whether our product meets those expectations.

Expectation vs. Reality

We create a poor brand experience if we set expectations for the customer and then not meet them in reality. Common sense.

Google Glass. Expectations vs Reality
Photo credit: Meme Center

But a misconception is that exceeding expectations creates positive brand experiences. Exceeding expectations is exceptional, but brands cannot deliver exceptional experiences every time. If we could, the experience would not be exceptional.

If we exceed expectations, the previous experience becomes the new expectation. It is not a repeatable experience, and we need it to be to build a brand.

A decade ago, I was upgraded from Economy to Business Class by Air Canada flight. The experience was way above my expectations; I was served champagne, my seat was broader, and I had a personal entertainment screen (rare in those days!) The next time I flew Air Canada, I was slightly disappointed when I was not upgraded again, and my experience in business class made economy harder to bare.

You create positive brand experiences by meeting expectations plus adding an element of surprise and delight. McDonald’s, Ford, Walmart, SouthWest, Dunkin’ Donuts, LG, and many others build their brands on setting customer expectations and meeting them… every time. All of them also have elements that we appreciate or are especially relevant to us, whether that be a clean bathroom, a smile of a staff member, a deal we weren’t expecting, or a seasonal offer.

Exercise in Expectation vs. Reality

Power Peanuts Ltd. makes a spread from double roasted peanuts that is similar to standard kinds of peanut butter, but with a slightly smoky taste that sophisticated customers enjoy.

Scenario 1:
Product name:
Premium Peanut Butter

Customer expectation:
Peanut butter that tastes much better than the standard fare.

Customer experience:
Peanut butter that tastes slightly better than usual.
Experience is less than expected.

Brand equity:

Scenario 2:
Product name:
Smooth Peanut Butter

Customer expectation:
Standard peanut butter without peanut chunks.

Customer experience:
Peanut butter that tastes slightly better than usual.
Experience meets expectation, plus a surprise and delight.

Brand equity:


Conclusion Be honest with your product label.

I am not advocating making your product sound less than to curb expectations. We know that exceeding expectations isn’t a repeatable experience.

I am just recommending to be honest about whether your product lives up to the expectations that you set by its name. You will create repeatable positive experiences when your product label and product experience line up, and is the best generator of brand equity.

Now take action to grow your brand.

Ask these two questions of your customers:

1 What do you expect from a product called insert product title?
2 Does our product meet those expectations?

You can do this through fancy market research and product testing, or just through casual conversations with your customers, or even your friends and family as stand-ins.

Align your product label and your customer experience, and your brand will grow.

Colin Finkle

Colin Finkle is a brand marketer and designer with ten years of experience helping Fortune 500 companies tell their story at retail. You can see his work at


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