Success begets not only further success but also harder-to-meet market expectations. That message was clearly evident after Samsung's unveiling of its latest flagship smartphone, the Galaxy S4.
Despite a Broadway-styled launch held in Radio City Music Hall, the new product received somewhat mixed reviews. In fact, in its IT-crazed home country of South Korea, the critics came out in full force and Samsung's stock price dropped nearly 3%. Some business media attributed the fall to disappointment among analysts over the lack of significant differentiation of the S4 features over its previous generations of smartphones or to existing competitors.
If all of this sounds familiar, then it should because not too long ago Apple faced a similar situation after its launch of the iPhone 5. Apple's stock has taken a battering since then and in an ironic twist, its shares rose slightly on the day of Samsung's Galaxy S4 intro — perhaps a reflection that Apple's worst fears of an arch nemesis' killer product were not realized.
Samsung's predicament is a classic example of the new-product juggling act that every company has to perform: While trying to keep its rivals at bay, it must at the same time compete with its own existing products.
Samsung is now the undisputed leading vendor of mobile handsets and smartphones. In terms of sales volume, product line diversity, operating system flexibility, R&D spending, and even customer loyalty, Samsung has emerged as a fierce competitor that has bested former industry champions like Nokia and Apple. But, Samsung may now be asking itself "is that still enough?"
The tougher competitor for Samsung than Apple could be Samsung itself, or at least the Samsung that many tech savvy consumers now desire to see. This is especially true for the updated flagship product that needs to be accepted as being vastly different from existing lines — in Samsung's case, the wildly popular Galaxy S3. While Samsung gets high marks for added software, an improved display, and fun-related new camera features, the consensus appears to be that there is no major hardware upgrade between the Galaxy S3 and S4 versions.
How then can a new front-runner better manage market expectations and also strive to be more innovative? Samsung could have used the following advice:
Lower the hype. The problem with self-generated hype around product launches is that you have to be able to back it up. The show-business debut, as well as the social media and teaser campaign leading up to the event were collectively seen as being "overhyped, under-delivered." Publicity is a necessary part of new product introductions. But when new products are over-publicized you are setting the bar of expectations unnecessarily high. In Samsung's case, the disappointed and boisterous reviewers of the Galaxy S4 may have drowned out the more positive (but quieter) reactions to the product.
Brand confidently. The market must clearly understand how this product is different. Many experts see the Galaxy S4 as a new strategic thrust by Samsung to "De-Google" its phone. In short, it is an Android phone that wants to stand out more as a Samsung made and operated phone. Despite this grand vision, Samsung is hedging its bets just in case the breaking away move does not pan out by keeping its key branding elements (especially the design and naming) more or less intact. That kind of straddling, however, may create confusion among consumers who judge products by their exterior. If the overall brand narrative is that it is a new kind of Samsung phone, then each important branding element must communicate a clear separation from existing phones.
Think the same, but different. Cultivate what I call a "doppelgänger mindset." Traditionally a doppelgänger is a person's sinister look-alike or alter ego. But the meaning here is that a company needs to think of itself also in a radically different and liberated way, without losing its core identity. For example, the top-dog protagonist in the movie Black Swan finds her creative expression only after such a figure enters her life. Similarly with Samsung, the pressure of maintaining the number one status seems to have inhibited their freethinking. Your Doppelgänger may allow you to revitalize that "I-got-nothing-to-lose" instinct that is often vital for real IT innovation.
Samsung is now entering uncharted territory as a bona fide leader in many fields. To maintain that mantle, however, it may have to start changing its "business-as-usual" approach.