The Right Customer Promises Drive Better Marketing Results

One of the more infamous quotes in marketing is usually attributed to John Wanamaker, who reportedly said, ” Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted. The trouble is, I don’t know which half.”

Cracking the code on what drives marketing effectiveness can be incredibly difficult. One TV ad, webinar, or ebook may be hugely successful, while another – based on the same theme and having similar creative elements and comparable distribution – fails to move the needle. In many cases like this, there’s no readily apparent way to explain the difference in performance.

An article appearing in the current issue of the Harvard Business Review offers a potential solution for this conundrum, at least when it comes to brand advertising. “The Right Way to Build Your Brand” was written by Roger L. Martin, Jann Schwarz, and Mimi Turner.

Martin is the former dean of the Rotman School of Management and the author of several books on business strategy and management. Schwarz and Turner are both executives at The B2B Institute, a B2B marketing think tank funded by LinkedIn.  

The authors clearly state their central message early in the article:  ” . . . the key to successful brand building is a clear and specific promise to the customer that can be demonstrably fulfilled. Advertising that makes such a promise almost always results in better performance than advertising that does not – even if the latter creates greater name awareness.”

This conclusion was based on an analysis of a large database of advertising case studies maintained by the World Advertising Research Centre (WARC). The WARC database includes over 24,000 case studies drawn from global ad competitions. These competitions typically require their entrants to provide information about how well their ads worked.

Specifically, the authors analyzed data relating to more than 2,000 ad campaigns entered in competitions from 2018 to 2022. The first step of the analysis was to classify the campaigns based on whether they had made “an explicit and verifiable promise to customers.” Forty percent of these campaigns (the “CP campaigns”) included such a promise, while 60% (the “non-CP campaigns”) did not.

Advertising that Included Customer Promises Performed Better

The authors then compared the performance of the CP campaigns with the non-CP campaigns on a variety of metrics and found that the CP campaigns outperformed the non-CP campaigns across most of the metrics. For example, the analysis revealed that:

56% of the CP campaigns (vs. 38% of the non-CP campaigns) produced improvement in brand perception, brand preference, and purchase intent.

45% of the CP campaigns (vs. 38% of the non-CP campaigns) resulted in increased market penetration.
27% of the CP campaigns (vs. 17% of the non-CP campaigns) resulted in market share growth.
The article also compared the performance of the CP campaigns vs. the non-CP campaigns based on the rating system used by WARC to rank campaign performance. The following table shows the results of that comparison.

As this table shows, the CP campaigns did better than the non-CP campaigns on all but the lowest level of performance.

Martin, Schwarz, and Turner also looked at what made the promises in the CP campaigns attractive to customers. They found that the most effective promises shared three important attributes. They were memorable, valuable, and deliverable.

Why Customer Promises Work

The authors have built a compelling case for including customer promises in brand advertisements. But what makes such promises effective? Martin, Schwarz, and Turner gave this answer:

“When one person makes a promise to another, it creates a relationship between the two. If the pledge is fulfilled, it builds trust, resulting in a valuable connection.”

I don’t disagree with this rationale, but established decision science principles provide an even more compelling explanation for why the right kinds of customer promises will deliver better business outcomes. This explanation is based on the interplay of rewards, goals, and motivation.

I wrote about this topic earlier this month, but here’s an abbreviated recap of the relevant decision science principles.

Motivation is a willingness to exert mental or physical effort in pursuit of a goal, and motivation is the primary driver of all human behavior.

As humans, we pursue a goal because we expect to receive a reward if the goal is achieved. Neuroscience research has shown that our brain has a “reward system” that’s activated when it processes information that signals a reward we value.
When our brain’s reward system is activated, we become motivated to pursue the goal that will enable us to reap the expected reward.
So, a customer promise in a marketing message will be effective when it signals a reward the recipient values. Martin, Schwarz, and Turner allude to this when they write, “Customers must want what the promise offers.”
“The Right Way to Build Your Brand” is an important article for marketers. It’s well worth the few minutes you will spend reading it.
Top image courtesy of Kevin Simmons (Mayberry Health and Home) via Flickr (CC).

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