A little to the side, or on top of, what it produces and sells us, the average company tends to have an overall identity which we’re used to referring to as its ‘brand’. A company’s brand isn’t strictly limited to what is being offered for sale to customers, it comprises its characteristic way of going about things, its values, beliefs and philosophy. If the company were a human being, we’d say the brand was its personality.
Because companies are in the business of fixing people’s problems, every brand holds out to customers what we might term a ‘brand promise’. This isn’t linked to any one single service or product, it is seldom directly stated but is present in many of the company’s declarations and manifestations (especially its advertisements). We could say that a company’s ‘brand promise’ is the distinctive contribution a company is suggesting it might make to human happiness.
Audi is in the business of making high performance cars. The advert above is, narrowly, trying to sell us a particular range of convertibles with good sound sytems. However, it also contains a ‘brand promise’. This seems to speak about how we could attain happiness – as well as a feeling of dignity, order and control – via advanced technology. The brand promises to lift us above confusion, squalor, fear and trivia – through the help of engineering and precision machinery.
Consider another company. British Airways narrowly tries to sell us tickets to get from A to B. But its ‘brand promise’ is a far broader thing: the company is inviting us to buy into certain values: of a life rendered good through infusion with virtues like old-fashioned Britishness, self-command, self-deprecating humour, precision and courage in the face of adversity.
Brand promises are at the heart of what creates the emotional connection between a customer and a company. However, these promises also have a tendency to get overlooked by companies themselves. It can be so hard simply to manage ordinary operations, there may be little time to ask the higher order questions: what contribution are we really trying to make to our customers’ happiness? What is the highest purpose which we could attach to this company? What is our mission? How well are we really communicating it? And what products and services could we innovate once our brand promise is more clearly in view – in order to honour our tantalising promises more systematically?
So as to capitalise on the opportunities that come from knowing one’s brand promise a little better, a company should learn regularly to analyse itself and the sector it operates in. Imagine an ambitious luxury hotel trying to stay afloat in a competitive market. Imagine that the hotel’s brand promise is around calm (all its advertisements hint at this), yet the day-to-day struggle of management is around delivery and the brutal fight with new competitors. In order to get a handle on its brand promise, the company needs to step back and ask the largest questions that it may have bypassed for too long: What is ‘calm’ really? What exactly is a ‘good’ night in a hotel? What if one went back to the drawing board and asked what contribution a hotel could make to the challenges of calm?
Typically, hotels don’t think these sort of problems belong to them; they might say they’re for philosophers (whom they rarely meet). They limit their focus to the soaps, the appearance of the room, and the difficulties of staff retention. In other words, they’re forgetting the full range of implicit promises they’ve made to their customers: you will be calm – and happy! – with us.
A hotel that took its brand promise of calm very seriously might be led to develop a whole range of new services and products. Hotels, like so many businesses, are only at the dawn of understanding their customers’ real needs, because they operate with an overly narrow definition of how they might live up to the promises that they release.
Or take wealth management. On the surface, this is a business that promises customers a certain return a year on their portfolios. But a deeper implicit promise is also present around many firms: ‘you will live well with money around us’.
However, very few firms have offerings that are actually connected up with this big promise, which renders them intensely vulnerable to competition and downturns in the market. A wealth management firm keen to deliver fully on a brand promise around ‘a good life with money’ wouldn’t stop looking after money in the standard ways, but it would also be asking bigger questions around how clients do actually flourish (or flounder) around money. How well are the clients’ children relating to money? How has money affected the clients’ friendships? What is the point of philanthropy? What has been the meaning of their lives? As with the example of the hotel, these are questions that implicitly fall under the remit of particular businesses, but these businesses are often not looking at them squarely and imaginatively enough.
Wrestling with brand promises is not an indulgence. It helps management to think more deeply about what a business should properly be trying to do with the customer’s life in order to improve it. There is, fortunately, never an enduring conflict between understanding promises of happiness and making some money.