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Is a brand really a promise?

Probably the most commonly accepted definition of a brand is brand guru Walter Landor‘s:

“A brand is a promise. By identifying and authenticating a product or service it delivers a pledge of satisfaction and quality.”

I agree. But I’ve also long had a nagging feeling that the logic of his definition is shaky. Until recently I couldn’t say why, but now I think I’ve got it: his definition is inside out.

Brands are made in the minds of the customers – not in the marketing department, management team or boardroom. Brands should therefore be defined from the buyer’s perspective, not the seller’s.

In that case, a brand is not what the seller promises about it, but rather what the buyer expects of it. In short:

“A brand is expectations.”

A brand is, after all, whatever people know, think and feel about a company, organization, product, service or concept. It is an aggregate of snippets of viewpoints, feelings, myths, rumors and experiences that become anchored in the mind of the buyer.

Consequently, a brand is not the product or service you buy. Nor is it your relationship to the seller or his company. However, your experience of the product or service – as well as your contact with the seller – affects your experience of the brand. This, in turn, affects your expectations of it, positively or negatively.

Strong brands make promises they can keep. And, at the very least, they always deliver what you expect, making you a loyal (and probably profitable) customer.

Weaker brands try to deliver what they promise. In practice, however, they meet expectations only rarely. They might sell goods or services in high quantities, and may even make money, but their customers have no abiding loyalty, and will switch to another brand the moment a better alternative comes along.

Weak brands promise many different things. Or they promise things that don’t concern us. We experience them as fragmented or irrelevant, which means that we either cannot or do not want to build any real expectations of them. They may sell on price or performance, but they are always vulnerable to any competitor who can stir exciting, relevant expectations in the mind of the buyer.

This is logical, but not at all rational.

The fact is that our expectations are rarely (if ever) about the product itself. Our needs and desires have to do with what the product or service results in – not what it is. My expectations of Apple are not a powerful laptop, a cheap music source, a spacious mp3 player or a cell phone with good sound quality. What I expect of Apple is to always give me a great (and intuitive) user experience, compared to goods and services from competing brands.

Moreover, the strength of our expectations varies depending on how important the benefit of the product experience is to us. For example, if I am buying a new car, my expectations are primed with many strong emotions, linked to what I think I need and want, and my expectations of my chosen brand are equally important. However, when buying toilet paper, my expectations of its performance are much less emotionally charged.

The comparison is certainly unfair, insofar as a car is a much larger financial investment. Quite simply, the potential consequences of my choice will be greater. But not all consequences are financial.

The fact is that the price is not necessarily directly proportional to the product’s emotional value for us – at least not automatically. Think Coca-Cola, Google, Lego, Absolut and Cheap Monday.

The point is that our feelings to, our expectations of, and even our experiences of a band can be manipulated. Nike makes its sports shoes into something much more than just sports shoes by addressing our desire to win and crush all competition. When we buy Nike, we see ourselves as part of the winning team. Harley-Davidson never just sell motorcycles. It speaks instead to the 43-year-old lawyer’s desire to encase himself in leather, glide out in the wilderness and, if only briefly, feel dangerous, rebellious and free.

Which brings us to the key point.

If a brand creates expectations linked to what its products or services are, it will find it very difficult to always keep its promises. Every time something in the product, delivery or service fails, the recipient experiences the brand’s broken promise.

If, on the other hand, a brand creates expectations about what its product or service results in, it will have every opportunity to make promises it can keep. Customer tolerance level for occasional errors and weaknesses in the product, delivery or service is very high – as long as the customer believes he is getting the expected experience or benefit.

This is easy to say, but difficult to achieve. And the less important your product category is for the customers, the more difficult it is.

But difficult is not the same as impossible.

The first step is to accept that your brand is a metaphor for something quite different from your product or service. It is people’s expectations of a benefit or experience. And this is something you can influence.

The next step is then to answer the question: What does every person, on every occasion, have a right to expect of your brand?

Depending on your brand’s product category, and the expectations currently placed on it, you can then select one of the following five strategic alternatives (the simplest approach first):

  1. Focus on and refine what your brand results in (and what differentiates it from competitors).
  2. Strengthen the perceived importance of what your brand will result in.
  3. Reduce the perceived importance of what your worst competitor’s brand results in.
  4. Add a completely new benefit or experience.
  5. Modify the decision rules, i.e. the selection criteria by which buyers make their decisions.

In conclusion: A brand is not an isolated promise. A brand is what people expect to receive in terms of utility, value or experience as a result of choosing it.

Therefore, make sure the expectations of your brand are always realistic in relation to the perceived delivery. Never promise more than you can deliver. If you do, your promise will be a burden to you, rather than an asset.

Brand strategist Marty Neumier summarized it brilliantly:

“A brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product, service or organization.”

(This post was originally published in Swedish on The Brand-Man.)