The Limits of Being ‘Unlimited’

Guest post by Brandon Watts of Wattsware

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This is a guest post by Brandon Watts, founder and principal of PR agency Wattsware.

For a company, being able to say that something you offer is unlimited is quite an advantage. In fact, the mere mention of this word typically brings a smile to the faces of consumers even if they don’t fully understand what it is that they’re getting that’s unlimited.

Saying that something is “unlimited” used to mean something, but you’ve probably noticed that more and more companies are jumping on the unlimited bandwagon — and suddenly, the whole idea of what the word means has become watered down. Part of the problem comes from the fact that the term may be defined one way by companies and marketers, but it’s often defined in a different way by consumers.

This topic came to my mind after a few trips to Red Robin, which is known for burgers and “bottomless” (or unlimited) fries. The idea of bottomless fries may sound good on paper and help to get customers in the door, but the experience isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be — at least from my perspective.

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You see, the act of offering “bottomless fries” conjures images of a forklift delivering barrels of fries to your table — but in reality, you’ll be doing well if you leave after consuming the same amount of fries that you would get with a meal at any other restaurant.

The first batch of fries that you receive is surprisingly small, and then you have to actively request more. Yes, the additional fries will come eventually — but you won’t be getting many more than you received in the first place.

Now you face a dilemma: you want more fries, but you’re too embarrassed to keep asking for refills that you can eat in just a few minutes. Besides, you can almost see the server silently judging you, and after one or two refills he or she is nowhere to be found (which is a sign that you’ve hit the bottom of the bottomless fry supply).

Of course, not everyone will have this experience, but the social dynamics of asking for more minuscule batches of fries make most people stop after one or two refills. Not only will the average Red Robin customer eat an average-sized serving of fries; he or she will somehow feel bad about doing it!

After reading this, you might think that I need to get some professional help to deal with my feelings about fries, but I assure you that that’s not the case. As someone who works in PR and marketing, I’m fascinated by the psychology behind the bottomless fries process: great for Red Robin, embarrassing for many customers.

Red Robin isn’t alone in this “unlimited” nonsense, either.

Another company that offers something unlimited (with a big catch) is AT&T.

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You may have one of the company’s “unlimited data” plans, but they’ve become known for throttling the speeds that you get with those plans. In other words, there are some very concrete limits to all things unlimited.

Those of us who help shape clients’ messaging strategies need to think about these and other, similar examples: advertising something that’s unlimited can be a huge hook for consumers, but if the experience doesn’t meet their expectations, then something that was a positive can turn into a negative.

In many cases, putting limits on what you offer and then over-delivering can be a better strategy than offering the world and only delivering a handful of fries.

Brandon Watts is the Founder and Principal of Wattsware, which is a PR agency that mainly works with technology companies. He’s worked with brand new startups, well-known companies with hundreds of millions of users, and everything in-between.