Getting the brand promise right

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Brand promises

A brand promise is the commitment to deliver made between that brand and its audience. It’s made, of course, in order to encourage that audience to buy. Ultimately of course a promise lives or dies on whether it is believed and delivered on – no surprises there – but the promise is shaped by a range of factors: the nature of the offering; the capabilities and capacity of the brand; the rival promises of competitors.

What’s often overlooked is that the character of the promise itself changes depending on the sector. Let me give an extreme example: a retail-style promise made by a professional services firm would fail. Imagine if a patent attorney promised her customers that they would “love how our intellectual property advice makes you feel”. Sure, it’s hardly a distinctive promise anyway, but clients would be laughing all the way to the door. (Equally, a professional services firm’s approach applied to selling domestic vacuum cleaners would be awkward to say the least.)

That’s because the style and nature of the promise and the commitment itself needs to align directly with the priorities of, and influences on, the decision maker. And that to my mind is where too many brand promises go wrong. They overlook how different the decision making processes are. Each process, and the factors that drive it, should decide the premise of the promise.

Business to consumer promises are most effective when they focus on excitement. Though the excitement factor itself may differ, retail brands and luxury marques generally make promises intended to make the pulses of buyers quicken – be that because buyers believe they’re getting a bargain, or they love the way something sounds or looks. The promises of retail brands, for the most part, need a high level of “feel-good” to be effective. Brands from Coke to Rolex understand this only too well. Very, very different promises – but the goal sentiment is to raise interest.

A brand making a business-to-business promise must focus on the key priority for that audience which is maximised value. Often the promise that best addresses that need is one focused on minimising risk. Again, the promise aligns with the decision process. While for consumers, the decision driver is often one of spontaneity and thrill, for a business audience, the key drivers in evaluating a promise are around fulfilling business needs and representing an acceptable risk to the business model. Reputations, personal and corporate, are at stake along with dollars. For that reason, the B2B promise needs to revolve around reassurance – the work will be delivered and the results will have both a positive bottom line impact and also help boost reputation.

The case for getting the brand promise for a B2B brand right is quantified in this article by Agnes Claye, Blair Crawford, Sascha Lehman and Thomas Meyer of McKinsey: “B-to-B companies with brands that are perceived as strong generate a higher EBIT margin than others. In 2012, strong brands outperformed weak brands by 20 percent, up from 13 percent in 2011. Decision makers are willing to pay a premium for strong brands because established brands make their lives easier.” The authors go on to point out that B2B brands often misunderstand their own value proposition. “Our research shows that while B-to-B suppliers focus their messages on corporate social responsibility, sustainability, and global reach, their customers care most about their honesty, responsibility across the supply chain, and level of specialized expertise.” In other words, B2B marketers often try to use the “feel-good” approach of business-to-consumer, only to find that, for example, while non-adherence to corporate social responsibility and sustainability can be reasons not to buy, promotion of those initiatives in the business to business space is often not the basis for a competitive promise in itself. Increasingly, those deliverables are expected.

Even within business to business, brand promises vary in their emphasis depending on the audience. In a business to trade environment, for example, where a brand is making a promise to another company in the supply chain or making an ingredient brand offering, the brand promise required is likely to focus on reliability and/or added value contribution. Gore-Tex for example successfully markets the levels of waterproofing in its fabrics to outdoor clothing manufacturers. In so doing, they look to position themselves as a valued contributor to the making of the final product. (Interestingly, ingredient brands can also make an end consumer promise to encourage buyer interest and demand in what the end product is made of or with.)

And if the intended audience is government, then the most effective brand promise is likely to revolve around predictability – adherence to commitments, process, policies, deadlines, relationships, budgets. Consider McKinsey & Company’s own promise in this space: “We help national, regional, and local government institutions improve their efficiency and effectiveness, enabling them to better fulfil their mission to the public.” It’s hardly the energised vow of a beer maker or an automaker – but it works in the corridors of power if you have a brand with the reputation of McKinsey (it probably wouldn’t work as effectively for a brand with less kudos – but that’s a different discussion).

The best guidance for developing an effective promise? For me, it comes straight from one of The Godfather movies: make them a promise they cannot refuse.

Photo of “Promise?”, taken by Carmella Fernando, sourced from Flickr

2 thoughts on “Getting the brand promise right

  1. Interesting observations Mark, especially around B2B. From my experience, the brand promise for many B2B firms “emerged” out of a product strength (usually where the brand consists of a single product). And then it stays fixed. B2B brands often fail to develop their promise to suit the different audiences they deal with as they grow. When the brand can afford a dedicated brand manager, the “feel good” emotional aspects creep in and are not necessarily aligned to audiences.

    1. Great point: “the brand promise for many B2B firms “emerged” out of a product strength … And then it stays fixed”. Thanks for taking the time.

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