Indeed, ask almost anyone who works in a public or customer-facing business role – be it finance, marketing, sales, PR, or any form of leadership position that occasionally has their head protruding above the parapet – about the most important goals of their job and you probably won’t get very far down the list before you come across the term “managing expectations”.
It’s a sentence that has more than a hint of new language in it, but the central concept is really as simple as it sounds; In almost any job that involves dealing with people outside of your own company (and many internally-oriented jobs), it is important to ensure that those people’s expectations are properly set and adjusted. Whether it’s investor expectations for your upcoming financial results, affiliate expectations for your installed base growth, consumer expectations for your release pipeline, customer expectations for your delivery dates … “Under-Promise and Deliver” is a mantra for many heard from us, and it is certainly applicable in many cases, but there are just as many roles where the real challenge is to make sure everyone is on the same page as what is actually being promised.
Leaks are inevitable, and leaks create rumors, and rumors, well, they create expectations
For consumer-oriented companies it has become more and more complex in the last few decades to manage the expectations of their customers and the public. The Internet has given public relations and marketing teams more powerful tools than ever to measure, shape and influence public opinion and expectations; however, it has also transformed the territory they operate in into something inherently unpredictable, rapidly changing, and filled with actors beyond their control. Companies have taken different approaches to dealing with this problem; some have chosen to be radically open and share as much information as possible about their product pipeline and future plans in an attempt to maintain some level of control over consumer expectations. Others, perhaps Apple most notably, have cracked down on leaks, trying to play their cards closer than ever in the hopes that an information blackout will keep rumors and speculation from turning into concrete expectations.
Nintendo is on the Apple side of that equation, in my opinion. It plays its cards close to its chest, seldom reveals anything until it’s good and done, and for the most part, it’s pretty good at that – still capable of big surprises, at least on the software front. On the hardware side, however, this is a much more difficult game, and Nintendo isn’t particularly good at it. The development and introduction of new hardware requires collaboration with many different companies and brings hundreds, if not thousands of people into the cycle. Leaks are inevitable, and leaks create rumors, and rumors, well, they create expectations.
It’s all a pretty lengthy way of saying that Nintendo announced a new version of the Switch this week, and while it was a pretty neat little update to the console’s hardware, it was greeted with a largely negative reaction and a blow to the company’s stock price – because it didn’t live up to the expectations that had been building for the company’s next hardware plans . I should add expectations that have been set without Nintendo saying anything; This week, the company even pointed out revised switch hardware for the first time. Everything else is a matter of leaks and reports which add up to a fairly clear picture of a. have built “Switch-Pro” Model in progress – reports that had become expectations, expectations that had hardened into accepted facts in the minds of some consumers and investors.
What we actually got in the form of a display update for OLED is only a disappointment when compared to these expectations. The Switch Pro almost certainly exists in one form or another – there’s enough information from enough independent sources to make this relatively certain whether it should ever be released in 2021, or whether people are getting their wires across the also-coiled OLED model have crossed the path through preproduction is an open question. There is a solid argument, however, that Nintendo is both fairly happy with Switch’s current sales (i.e., sees no need to trigger an upgrade cycle for existing users), and isn’t in the mood to rush into the fray to get a supply chain for a new chipset going in the current shortage of semiconductors. The strategic reasons for keeping the powder dry in a major upgrade of the Switch seem to hold up.
With Switch still selling fantastically, but with the effects of COVID in a somewhat sparse software pipeline, this year wouldn’t be a great time to go [Switch Pro]
Arguably the most interesting thing about the OLED switch, however, isn’t the disappointment it causes both investors and core consumers – neither of which is likely to matter if the makeover does what it’s supposed to and gives the console a nice sheen Novelty just in time for occasional consumers to think about their winter and Christmas shopping. Rather, it’s what it tells us about Nintendo’s strategy, and how Nintendo itself sees the Switch – because this overhaul is very much a handheld overhaul in terms of Nintendo’s history of hardware overhauls, and that has ramifications for that Platform future.
Sure, the OLED switch isn’t the full update we saw with the Switch Lite – which completely removed all docked gaming features from the console to turn it into a purely handheld – but it’s also an update that does in the first place not much point unless you are mainly playing in handheld mode. Aside from a few relatively minor details, the only major upgrade here is a redesign of a screen that’s hidden behind plastic when docked. It might not be a purely handheld device like the Lite, but it makes sense that the Switch should now be twosome on hardware updates that focus entirely on the console’s undocked handheld functionality.
If we look beyond the hardware specifics, the hardware strategy that is coming into focus for this platform as a whole is much, much more “handheld-like” than we might have expected. One of the main differences between Nintendo’s home consoles and its handheld devices is that the company tinkers tirelessly with the latter; where the home consoles generally don’t change much in terms of hardware from one end of their life to the other (specifics like the Wii Mini Regardless, the handhelds are constantly updated during their launch and typically have multiple versions of the hardware on store shelves at the same time.
The OLED update for the Switch is absolutely on par with the smaller “bump” hardware updates for Nintendo’s past handhelds – it brings nothing new and won’t get anyone but the most loyal fans to replace their existing Switch, but it’s a solid improvement, which will make the console more attractive to new buyers. If this is the road we’re on – the Switch is regularly tweaked and re-shaped like Nintendo’s handhelds always have been – then the possibility of a Switch Pro and other exotic new hardware models in the years to come remains very much alive.
The implication that Nintendo strategically views the Switch as a handheld console should not be over-interpreted – the company is not in the process of “giving up” the docked game or anything, and it’s worth noting that its marketing for the Switch is always focused still heavily on the docked aspects of the console’s functionality. However, it suggests the approach we’re likely to see to the new demographic markets that it will infiltrate as Switch’s installed base grows. Successful consoles inevitably move into looser, less engaged consumer groups as they seek new audiences to keep their sales curve looking healthy, and for Switch, these groups seem more like handheld gamers than console gamers.
The advent of smartphones means that, of course, Nintendo will never conquer the Game Boy market the way it once was – but the company’s focus on improving the handheld aspects of its hardware implies that there is a potentially huge “semi- Casual “market identified by consumers for whom it is a bit too much to take over the living room TV for a big-screen gaming extravaganza but spend some time on a device that is a big step away from a smartphone experience is is absolutely in their ballpark.
The OLED Switch, like the Lite before it, is largely aimed at this audience. It won’t trigger an upgrade cycle for existing Switch owners – but Nintendo can keep this option in their back pockets for a period when they actually need it. This year, with Switch still selling fantastically but seeing the effects of COVID in a somewhat sparse software pipeline, would not have been the best time to try to capitalize on an upgrade cycle – Nintendo is fumbling instead around the edges, making its hardware look fresh and interesting to casual buyers.
It’s unfortunate that the immediate reaction was, “This isn’t the Switch Pro we wanted” – and Nintendo might do well to learn some lessons about expectation management from this, because if you’re not Apple (whose periods between major Announcements are short and their ability to brutally tackle information leaks is legendary) then you can’t manage expectations like Apple does, and if you don’t set expectations someone else will be there for you.
Ultimately, those who are disappointed probably weren’t in their intended audience anyway – and as for the Switch Pro rumor mill, we can assume it will turn on for a few more cycles, it seems.