Brand Promises vs Brand Religions

First published February 19, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

I wish Steve Ballmer would check with me before he does these things. Last week Microsoft announced it was launching Microsoft-only retail outlets similar to the successful Apple Stores. My intention with this column was to follow up on last week’s column, “No Search is an Island,”¬† which prompted some interesting comments.

My point was that search captures awareness-created demand, it doesn’t generate it. If you want to continue to harvest from the bottom of the funnel, you need something to prime the top. And many, quite rightly, pointed out that traditional methods of priming the top, including TV, are becoming less and less effective. Martin Lindstrom, in his book “Buy-ology,” ¬† references extensive neuro-scanning studies that showed that millions of dollars are being wasted in ineffective brand building.

So what is effective brand building in the new digital world? What is the best way to prime the pump? As I started to think about that, I realized the answer depends on the nature of the brand to be built. And, as I was chewing that over, the Microsoft story hit my inbox and I realized that it captured the essence of two distinct characters of brand: promise and religion. These two characters of brand occupy two totally different places in our mindscape, and so have to be treated differently, no matter what branding channel you choose to use.

The Origin of the Brand Promise

A brand is a collection of symbols, experiences and associations connected with a product, a service, a person or any other artifact or entity.

This is how Wikipedia defines¬† brand. But here’s the thing. Brands aren’t defined by Wikipedia. They’re defined by each one of us, in a way unique to us. Ford means one thing to you, another thing to me. Every brand has this same inherent characteristic. All Ford can do is contribute the raw materials used to create the concept of the Ford brand in my mind, but it can’t control how I put those things together.

Originally, all brands started as a promise of quality to the consumer. People were familiar with goods produced by local craftsman. The craftsman was the brand: the more skilled the creator, the higher the quality and the more trust placed in the product. Mass production needed to provide that peace of mind, so brands were placed on products as an assurance of quality. But somewhere in the latter half of the 20th century, brands became more than a promise, they became a religion. And that’s where everything became really wacky. Brands moved from a rational evaluation of quality to an emotional connection.

A Religious Experience

All brands want to become a religion, but not all brands have what it takes to make the transition, at least with a substantial number of customers. GM is a promise, BMW is a religion. United is a promise, JetBlue is a religion. And sorry to tell you this, Steve — but Microsoft is a promise, Apple is a religion.

Promises and religions are judged by different criteria. The customer-product relationships are driven by different motivations. If your brand is not a religion, you can’t suddenly build a church and expect people to worship. I see Microsoft retail stores as destined for dismal failure. First of all, Microsoft products are ubiquitous, so why do I need to go to a special store to find them? Secondly, Microsoft products have none of the religious aura surrounding them that Apple products do. The Microsoft brand never became more than a promise.

Brand Starts and Ends at the Core

One thing that both these natures of brand have in common: ultimately they depend on the values, integrity and effectiveness of the organization that creates the brand. If the brand is a promise of a level of quality, you can’t break the promise with immunity, especially in a digitally amplified world of blogs, forums and buzz. Each of the “promise” brands I used as examples, GM, United and Microsoft, stand in danger of their promises losing all meaning with customers. A promise is only as good as the level of trust you’ve built with the recipient.

But if the brand is a religion, the culture of the organization becomes even more important. Irrational decision factors run amok: the perceived culture of the organization, how the brand label connects with who we are, the social circles it places us it, or the circles we wish it would place us in, the values the company stands for, the exclusivity of the brand. The brand relationship becomes a complex stew of beliefs and emotions. We only make this investment for brands that hold a unique position in our mindscape. We feel we have to get as much from the brand as we’re willing to give it in terms of our emotional loyalty. And if a brand doesn’t reciprocate, it is quickly downscaled from a religion to a passing fancy.

I Am What I Buy (Sometimes)

One of the most ironic things about humans is that we seek to define who we are as individuals by the social associations we make. We stand out by joining groups. And this is a huge motivating factor in the brands we chose to give religious devotion to (Rob Walker’s book “Buying In” is a great exploration of this). Using a Mac puts us in the top 10% of the technically cool population (aka Justin Long). Using Windows means we’re lumped in with the remaining 90% of poor, boring schlumps (aka John Hodgman). Again, not a very compelling reason to seek out a Microsoft store.

This dichotomy of branding becomes important when we look at how brand awareness may be built online. First, you have to be brutally honest about assessing whether your brand is a promise or a religion. It worries me greatly that Microsoft seems to be suffering from delusions of brand religion. There’s nothing wrong with being a solid promise. Many brand religions started there. Personally, I believe brands would be much better off worrying more about delivering on a promise and less about becoming a religion. By the way, it’s unusual for the biggest brand in a category to be the religious brand (Coke is one exception). It’s tough to be unique when you’re following the herd.

But the first step is accepting what you are.

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