Brands should not make promises they cannot keep

by Nigel Hollis | January 14, 2019

We all know that to be successful brands need to reach out to new users, and create positive expectations about what it is like to use the brand. However, it is not just advertising that creates expectations and if those expectations are not met it can reflect badly on the brand.

Gordon Brown, co-founder of Millward Brown, coined the word “enhancement” to describe the way in which advertising could shape people’s experience of a brand. By creating positive expectations of the experience advertising focuses people’s attention on specific attributes that the brand can be seen to deliver. Gordon’s favourite example was advertising for Pledge furniture polish, which showed someone spray polish onto a table top and then wipe off the polish to reveal their reflection.

But it is not just advertising that creates expectations. And expectations are not always enhancing, sometimes they can detract from an experience too. Let me give you a little example of how easy it is to create an expectation and then fail to meet it.


Standing at the baggage carousel in Paris- Charles de Gaulle airport the other day, I noticed a little animated cartoon on the digital screen in front of me. The image showed luggage being delivered and told me my luggage would be delivered at 18:06. That’s a good idea, I thought, it stops people getting frustrated, they know that they will have to wait 10 minutes rather than expecting their luggage to arrive sooner.

Except, of course, the luggage did not arrive at 18:06. It did not arrive at 18:07. Or 18:08. And with every passing minute my frustration continued to grow. By the time the luggage arrived 10 minutes later than promised I was feeling distinctly let down. Now I am sure Paris Aéroport has position intentions in providing information on expected luggage delivery time. But that good intention backfired because my expectations were not met.

When I bought a pair of Bose noise-cancelling headphones designed to work with my iPhone rather than an Android phone I assumed that they would come with a jack suitable for the iPhone. Silly me, apparently not, I need to add on the little converter that came with the iPhone to attach the two. In this case Bose did not explicitly claim anything, but I was left to create my own expectation based on what was written in the online description. The headphones work well but I will always feel a bit let down every time I plug them into my phone.

These examples are trivial in the context of all the claims made by marketers, both implicit and explicit, but hopefully they help highlight the importance of creating expectations, and of delivering on them. But what do you think of the power of expectations? Please share your thoughts.

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