As marketers we take brand promises for granted. We just accept that every brand in its right mind has one and that it is committed to keeping it. As consumers, we have no such awareness. We don’t wander around with the strategies of our favourite brands on our devices checking that, wherever we see them, they are doing what they said they would do in the strategy.
In fact, ask any consumer to articulate the promise of even their favourite brand and all will struggle. What does Google promise? I don’t know exactly. What is the exact wording of the Moleskine promise? I have no idea. I think Starbucks promises me great coffee, but again I haven’t seen the playbook.
And I never will as a consumer. And neither will you.
Impressions become promises
What we do have are impressions – perceptions accumulated from all our encounters with a brand that tell us what we think we can expect. In all likelihood we subconsciously interpret those as a promise. Even then, expectation is not one thing. It’s extrapolated from a series of signals that are summed up neatly by Scott Smith as seven expectation types:
1. Explicit expectations – the things brands say that consumers will get. The expectation from consumers is that the brand will do what it says on the box.
2. Implicit expectations – the expectations around comparison and therefore what consumers infer they can expect from one brand or another.
3. Static performance expectations – the defined expectations around performance and quality in a specific situation or for a specific application.
4. Dynamic performance expectations – the changing expectations for a product or service over time. These are consumers’ adaption expectations. We expect the things we buy to keep up.
5. Technological expectations – how consumers expect the technology that powers what they buy to evolve, introducing new features and enabling new capabilities. These expectations are closely linked to how prepared consumers feel for the world around them.
6. Interpersonal expectations – the level and nature of relationship that consumers have with a brand. Interpersonal of course now includes high elements of automation and self service that add new complications in terms of lifting transactions beyond functionary.
7. Situational expectations – what consumers expect to happen in a specific situation and whether the experience lived up to, exceeded or failed that expectation.
Four categories of expectations
Let me break these down into four categories of expectations and relate them to brand promise:
Sector – your brand is part of a sector and that sector makes specific promises in the mind of the consumer. We expect fresh food at a supermarket. We expect to be served in a restaurant. We also have reputational expectations that form an implied promise when we engage with a brand in a sector. We expect a taxi to be safe. We expect a fashion brand to be energetic and full of ideas. We expect our internet to be fast. We expect the trains to run and the planes to fly. The sector promise forms the bedrock for our expectations. It drives explicit expectations, static performance expectations, dynamic performance expectations, technological expectations and situational expectations for consumers. But meeting all these expectations gives a brand nothing beyond participation. Today, it doesn’t make you exceptional in any way.
Price – this powerful signal influences the quality of what we can expect. As consumers, we look for higher priced products to deliver greater quality, reliability and comfort. We expect to get what we pay for. Price has a significant impact on implicit expectations, but for the most part price alone is not the basis for a compelling promise – unless you are talking about conspicuous consumption luxury products. We don’t buy something because it costs more: we do pay more because a brand offers something that is rare, aspirational or extraordinary.
Service – service perceptions are influenced by three of the seven customer expectations: technological expectations; interpersonal expectations; and situational expectations. Marketers talk about this at length and about the need for brands to exceed customer expectations in order to succeed. They take their cues for this from customers who, not surprisingly, when asked what else they would like, quickly look to collectively raise the returns.
I call this the “Gimme” deception. Asked what they would like, customers say “gimme” more personalisation, more options, more attention, faster service and shorter processes. But as this HBR article makes clear, perhaps we over-estimate the impact that delightful service has on buying decisions. Consumers punish bad service, no doubt, but that doesn’t mean the inverse dynamic applies: “Two critical findings emerged that should affect every company’s customer service strategy. First, delighting customers doesn’t build loyalty; reducing their effort—the work they must do to get their problem solved—does. Second, acting deliberately on this insight can help improve customer service, reduce customer service costs, and decrease customer churn.”
Brand – the style and nature of a brand, its personality, has a significant impact on expectations. In fact, I believe character is the most powerful opportunity for a brand in terms of what it should promise. It influences implicit and technological experiences by helping consumers decide what the brand is capable of. It creates interpersonal experiences by telegraphing to consumers how they can expect the brand to relate to them. And it speaks to situational experiences because consumers glean from personality how much they can rely on the brand to do good by them. Given that sector and service expectations are prevalent but for the most part non-differentiating and that price sets the bar and reflects the promise (but doesn’t make it), how a brand chooses to behave decides what it gets to promise, not the other way round. And a brand promise is no longer about what consumers get; it’s about what consumers get to feel. Three questions:
- What does your brand promise to make your customers feel every time they choose you?
- Why would they expect that from you?
- Yet why is that extraordinary?
We keep thinking promises are made in words. They’re not. They’re captured in words by marketers. Consumers are oblivious.
“No other brand will make you feel so …” That’s the basis for a great brand promise – and very, very few brands deliver on it because they confuse operational excellence with promissory distinction. They promise great service or great features because they want the world to know they’re very good. The thing is – the world already knows, or rather it assumes. That’s not a promise. It’s just a reassurance (and one that consumers increasingly take for granted). We keep thinking promises are made in words. They’re not. They’re captured in words for organisations’ convenience – and in phrases that marketers and senior teams feel good about but that, in reality, consumers are oblivious to.
Until consumers get a feeling that they’d like to get again and that they didn’t/can’t get anywhere else, you haven’t promised them anything great at all. You don’t promise and then deliver. In reality, you have to deliver first, and that becomes the promise.