Brands That Make No Promises

futurelab default header

by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

If brands are a promise, then the rules of chance, tactics of politics, and the uncertainty of human behavior all suggest that we should promise as little as possible.

Chance is an engine of randomness, so it’s a foregone conclusion that a percentage of what absolutely, positively know that we can deliver for consumers will, someway, somehow, and through no fault of our own, get all screwed up. That means every marketing plan needs to incorporate a fickle finger of Fate factor, and any sensible business approach would demand that we minimize its potential impact and cost. Promising less would be the obvious variable to move.

In politics, we see the candidates for President lowering expectations (or the criteria for judging) for their performance. Each one of them is an underdog, although it’s statistically impossible. Statements are parsed, revised, and otherwise changed in real-time, in a way that constantly tempers any specifics of promise with the comfortably vague declarations of desire and intent. 

And you can pretty much forget about trying to manipulate human behavior; if people did what they were supposed to do, nobody would believe in UFOs, the Soviets would have won the Cold War, and our kids would go to bed on time. 

Consumers are now as much the architects of their experiences — thanks to social media, technology, and the me-ness of the Entitlement Generation — as they are the recipients. So any promise you make to them requires an equivalent promise from them, although your brand will still be held accountable if they subsequently fail to follow through.

A brand conceived as a promise heightens the risks to your business in four primary ways:

  1. Expectation: A promise raises expectations, pure and simple. We tend to think of our products and services in terms of what they should do for consumers (functional benefits), and then attach all of the attributes that could be a part of those experiences (associative benefits). Since we believe in what we sell, we often promise what we want to swear by, and not necessarily what our consumers will ever recognize or explore
  2. Knowledge: For those experiences to be realized, our consumers need to know ever-more about how to realize them (as well as where, when, why, etc.). A promise has implicit context and requirements around it, so the more we hope to deliver, the more we must deliver. Promises make our lives more complicated and expensive
  3. Accountability: Be careful what you wish for is a salient warning for brand marketers, as sometimes the worst thing we could accomplish is to get our consumers to expect exactly and completely what we promise…because that means they’ll hold us accountable for it
  4. Benchmarks: So, presuming we actually deliver on a promise, our success serves to hike and re-set the benchmark for the next promise. 

I wonder whether brand promises should be purposely low-balled, and focused less on a list of functional and/or associative benefits, and more on an ongoing process of engagement.

Maybe in this age of constant contact, we could shift our approach from plotting consumer experiences of branding promises to promises of branded experiences. Brand not so much a litany of buillets to be delivered, and more a series of moments that we design so we can constantly exceed, delight, and inspire.

Talking about brands a promises, full stop, maybe misses the point. I expect too much from my definitions to be satisfied with it.

Original Post: