Brand Promises Vs. Brand Religions

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.

18 comments about "Brand Promises Vs. Brand Religions".
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  1. Mandy Vavrinak from Crossroads Communications, LLC, February 19, 2009 at 2:54 p.m.

    This is so timely, and true. I've been involved in some rampant brand discussions recently on Twitter (@mvavrinak) and I love your distinction between promise and religion. If companies could just start with a clear perception of where they are on the scale, decision making clarity might be possible. Thanks for sharing. I'll be posting a link shortly to Twitter. :)

  2. Steve Plunkett from Cool Websites Organization, February 19, 2009 at 2:56 p.m.

    Great Article Gord,
    I totally agree..

    and wikipedia.. i think is a promise whereas crunchbase is a religion...

    i for one will be glad when it goes away... they have inaccurate information and if you represent a company listed on there it's against their terms of service to actually update it on behalf of the company..

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, February 19, 2009 at 3:05 p.m.

    So, it all comes down to people are sheep. How true and nice to see how it is finally coming together for others and how you tie religion to sheep. Not baaaaad.

  4. Edward Arroyo from MakeBelieveStudios, February 19, 2009 at 3:46 p.m.

    I like what I read. Good distinctions between "promise" and "religion." But I never read any more in response to the questions you posed earlier:

    "...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..."

    So, any more to say in response to these questions."

  5. Jim Dugan from PipPops LLC, February 19, 2009 at 4:02 p.m.

    Do you think that there's more behind it, Gord? Maybe Microsoft is looking at coming out with their own mobile device.

    Maybe they're looking to come out with many different options for different types of mobile devices and netbook type devices.

    Unless there's something I'm not quite seeing here, I have to think there's a larger vision to the opening of the retail locations than to just getting into the brick and mortar to only sell software - go figure - when almost everybody else is getting out.

    And, then, again, maybe Microsoft thinks they got religion!

  6. Gordon Hotchkiss from Out of My Gord Consulting, February 19, 2009 at 4:09 p.m.

    Edward..yes. STay tuned next week!

  7. Vicky Hastings from Maxwell PR + Engagement, February 19, 2009 at 4:25 p.m.

    You nailed it. Microsoft is a business that cares primarily about Microsoft. It's ironic, because brands that put consumers first enjoy the strongest brand loyalty. Walk into the NYC Apple Stores on Fifth Avenue or 14th Street, and you'll be surrounded by a fantastic brand experience. I have a hunch that walking into a Microsoft retail store may also be a brand experience, but perhaps not the one the company is trying to create.

  8. Aaron B. from, February 19, 2009 at 5:11 p.m.

    If the "Microsoft Store" plan doesn't really pan out, perhaps they'll be more of a Brand Cult than a Brand Religion... If the scenario presents itself such that the Stores serve more as portable customer service stations full of people who come and go with hardware and software they readily admit is John Hodgman-inferior (which may or may not be the case), then Microsoft would only be reinforcing what is obvious to its customers without increasing the value of its fundamental assets.

  9. Jacco de Bruijn, February 19, 2009 at 6:22 p.m.

    Thank you Gord for this really insightful article, we have posted it on our site as essential reading for more people to find and think about your idea. It really makes you look at brands in another way. I just encountered another example of your thesis when a NY Times article hit my Inbox: Senseo (brand promise) and Nespresso (brand religion).

  10. Malcolm Rasala, February 19, 2009 at 9:11 p.m.

    What a ton of nonsense. Only marketing people delusionalize themselves with such 'religious' nonsenses.

    Apple promises eternal happiness and an after-life does it? Tell that to someone who's product does not work. We don't wait until we are dead to find out if it works.
    We take it back and demand one that does in the here and now.

    Products are about making money. Nowt else. Priests of religion are about making money. Nowt else. Priests have been doing it for 5000 plus years. And still their promises of an after life without a shred of evidence hoodwink millions. No one is hoodwinked by a failed or unwanted product.

    We live in a world of science. Fortunately we are too complex for marketing gurus to understand. Try as they might to conjure up reasons why we do or do not buy
    a product they cannot. Of course like priests they pretend they can. Like priests this is how they make their money. But in reality their messages like that of all priests is specious nonsense.

    Coca-Cola is a product. If it ich you buy when you want. It does not promise you an after-life other than diabetes. The iPod does not promise you eternal happiness. It is a product. Nothing more. To believe otherwise is to fever-up delusional nonsenses.
    We'd all go to war for Apple and die for its leader right?.

  11. Joel Rubinson from Rubinson Partners, Inc., February 19, 2009 at 9:25 p.m.

    Hi Gord-- Joel, Chief Research Officer of the ARF here. There are some major problems with your blog:
    1--TV effectiveness is NOT declining according to a meta-analysis I presented at Wharton on 388 case histories. How much data do you have?
    2--shopping is often about experience. I go to the Apple store for a pleasing lunch hour because it's fun. Microsoft has technology that will knock your socks off that you DO NOT YET know about. Think you might drop in and change your opinion?
    If you want to learn about shopping and shopper insights, come to the ARF's first shopper insights council meeting on Monday Feb 23rd at 2PM by going to to register.

  12. Ken Headrick from Microsoft, February 19, 2009 at 11:09 p.m.

    Hi Gord.

    With regard to the stores, I think, as ironic as this is to you as a search and testing kind of guy, I think we like to test lots of ideas and pursue various approaches which is maybe a luxury for us given our financial position. Our approaches with WebTV, Xbox and MediaCenter are a good example of us pursuing the connected home in a few different ways. The store idea has actually been around awhile for many years at Microsoft but because 98% of our revenues come through partners and we are very focused on being a great partner for the thousands of retailers, PC makers and others that build on our products, it has always been a touchy subject - and Steve has thought about this decision for quite awhile Gord but the next time I see him I will ask him to talk to you the next time he is thinking about making a big decision :-).

    This is about our renewed focus in Microsoft on our consumer businesses and thus has been reconsidered and so I think we are all interested to see how it turns out. As a Canadian from Toronto, I have seen our concept store in Seattle that would be the model for these and they are really nice. Quite a lot of major retailers and other major partners of ours have been through it as well and have been very impressed.

    You make a point that our products are distributed everywhere and thus we don't need these stores. Well, Apple's are broadly sold and distributed as well and so I am not sure that point supports your argument.

    I think that this is actually, ironically about connecting with consumers given we operate through intermediaries a lot of the time and so I think this is a good opportunity for us to learn and iterate and that is something that we do very well.

  13. Gordon Hotchkiss from Out of My Gord Consulting, February 20, 2009 at 12:32 a.m.

    Thanks for the insight from the inside Ken...
    Joel..want to put money on the success of the MS Stores?

  14. Lance Loveday from Closed Loop Marketing, February 20, 2009 at 1:34 p.m.

    Wow. Seems like you've struck a nerve here, Gord. FWIW, I thought the article was great and spot on.

    The only counterargument that would make any strategic sense is the one about Microsoft having some very cool consumer technology up their sleeves. But I seriously doubt that it exists. And even if there is some new cool thing waiting in the wings, I certainly don't trust Microsoft to get it right on their first time out. More likely they're going to push Media Center and some semi-cool but not-nearly-as-cool-as-the-iPhone (NNACATi) mobile tech.

    I also worry about this whole thing backfiring due to unintended consequences - like the angry hordes of people with PC problems who may descend on the stores hoping for some live support.

    Will be interesting to see how this pans out. But put me down as doubtful as well.

  15. Ellen Corley from ResearchWorks, February 20, 2009 at 6:21 p.m.

    As someone who has done a lot of strategic branding research over the last 20 years, I personally think that a Microsoft store is a great idea. I live in Chicago and I can see that a Microsoft Store on Michigan Avenue would provide huge ROI for Microsoft in terms of meeting a number of unmet consumer needs - one of which would be the ability to provide consumers with much needed training and customer service support.

    Another reason why I think a Microsoft store is a good idea is that it seems that retailers in general now have more market power than manufacturers - primarily because a retail channel not only informs the customers but it also is a channel for listening to customers and building relationships with them.

    Also, I think that if Microsoft had a great physical presence of a store, it will them build the brand from a promise to religion. There is an ING store in Chicago that has helped me understand how a well-designed place can really really reinforce the meaning of the brand to me.

  16. Andrew Weir from Zenithoptimedia, February 21, 2009 at 5:06 p.m.

    I think this is an interesting idea.

    All brands make a promise. It is the brands that deliver what they promise then go that extra mile to delight that win (like Apple).

    It should be the goal of every brand to delight consumers.

    Microsoft will have a much better change of delighting consumers when get them into their stores and wowwing them..

  17. Thorsten Rhode from marqueteer, February 23, 2009 at 8:04 p.m.

    Great concept, Gord. My $0.02: A Brand is a Terrible Thing to Waste (TM) -- and a tough thing to build. I am not always sure that one starts out to build a promise or a religion, though (or that you can pre-determine the outcome). And, as you say, some marketers may not even want to be in the religion corner, as that will oftentimes, paint you into a small(er) niche. Not everybody's cup'o tea.
    The one thing missing in this discussion is "product": Certainly, the actual product (the delivery on the promise and/or the stepping stone to the religion, if you will) comes into play when building a brand. GM and BMW are perfect examples -- a mediocre product will rarely elicit worship. (@marqueteer)

  18. Rebecca Rolfes from Imagination Publishing, February 24, 2009 at 9:59 a.m.

    Interesting how well this applies to association membership, not an audience that's that familiar with branding.

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