Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

Make a Brand Promise or Keep a Brand Promise?

I promise.

You have $10,000 left in your marketing budget. Should you use it to make a brand promise or to keep a brand promise?

It’s a tricky question and one that Bain & Company tries to answer in a newly released white paper. (Click here). As Bain points out, we often think of branding as a way to create an emotional attachment with a consumer. Bain suggests a different approach: we create brands to shift demand. With a strong brand, we may shift demand to higher prices or greater volume or, maybe, some of both.

As we build brands, we need to make brand promises. This often involves emotional advertising and direct marketing. On the other hand, for a mature brand in an established market, more advertising may deliver diminishing returns. Rather than shifting demand, we’re just spending money in a senseless arms race.

Bain gives four examples of fashion retailers that take very different approaches to brand promises. At one end of the spectrum, American Apparel and Benetton advertise heavily and often provocatively. In other words, they’re making promises. However, recent results — stagnant at best — suggest that they’re not keeping promises.

At the other end of the spectrum, Patagonia spends far less on advertising but has invested heavily in environmental causes. Patagonia’s strong word-of-mouth momentum focuses on promises kept. Similarly, the fashion retailer, Zara, does no advertising at all. Through smart locations, however, and short, fast production runs, they’ve built a strong company. The chatter about Zara also focuses on promises kept. For both Patagonia and Zara, the results have included faster growth and higher margins than almost all their competitors.

Bain argues that brand equity is really a brand’s power to shift demand. To illustrate, the authors review brand equity for 21 different product categories. (The research is based on discrete choice analysis, which I’ll describe in more detail in the near future). The research isolates different elements of the consumer decision — allowing us to compare the power of pricing, brand, and specific features. For MP3 players, for instance, the leading brand captures 38.5% of consumer choice based on brand alone. This compares to 13.9% for the second strongest brand. In other words, the leading brand was 2.9 times more powerful than the second brand in shifting demand.

Brands were powerful in both B2C and B2B categories.  Many authors have suggested that brands are not as important in B2B categories — that B2B purchase decisions are not “emotional”. The Bain study suggests otherwise. As the authors write, “Companies have built strong brands even in … B2B … categories such as construction tools and medical devices. On construction sites, the loyalty to tool brands runs as deep as the passion that fashionistas demonstrate for their favorite jeans.”

Think about your brand — whether corporate or personal. Do you need to attract attention by making more brand promises? Or do you need to build loyalty by fulfilling brand promises? Either way, consider the power you have to shift demand simply by the way you behave.

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