Brand promise links products and services to a consumer. Through brand promise, brands tell people that they will be forever young, or beautiful, or rich, or popular - if they consume their products.
Brand promise used to have a powerful function. It helped people make decisions in the complicated situation of having to choose between millions of similar products. It mostly did so through helping people calculate the benefits and costs of buying a particular product over any other.
To help people calculate benefits and costs, brands used communication. They repeated the same messages over and over again in mass media until: a) they created positive associations between a brand and its products and, b) they persuaded people to believe in the brand promise.
The alleged mechanism was something like this: first, you see some product and you immediately think "oh, it's going to make me forever pretty," and, second and more important, you decide to believe that it will. This means that, based purely based on the brand promise, you expect a product to deliver.
Well, that's just plain crazy.
Regardless, the reason that marketing communication used to be so powerful was simply that people did not have any other decision-making tools available. Precisely because people could not easily calculate costs and benefits, they had little choice but to trust the brand. There was simply no way of knowing in advance if a product is going to suck: unless you buy it, take it home, and use it, you won't ever know. The situation of decision-making contained obvious risks, and brand promise served to minimize them.
Ok, so that's how things used to work.
Now, it turns out, even if persistent marketing communication created specific & well-defined brand associations, there's no guarantee that these association have anything to do with product sales. And if brand associations do not indicate people's awareness of brand promise, how can we know that this promise played any role in people's decision-making? Truth is, we can't. There are always reasons that people will choose some product that have nothing to do with its brand: timing, price, convenience, habit, etc. And then, just because someone repeatedly buys some product, we can't know that she does it because of brand promise. Or, as Lou Carbone said: “Just because I fly airlines doesn’t mean I love them. I hate airlines.”
Then, that whole "let's persuade people to believe our brand promise by using cultural identification" does not seem to work so well anymore. A little bit of behavioral economics here: a study called “Rethinking Brand Contamination” (discovered via Bill Petti) shows that immediate context of decision-making shape consumers' calculations way more than their brand perceptions. This situation has very real economic implications: when they have social and cognitive clues available, people are willing to pay a way higher average price for some product than when those clues are missing.
In digital, we obviously don't lack those clues. There's Twitter, Red Laser iPhone app, Price Grabber, reviews, blogs, and ton of applications to help us decide among products and services. Then there's interface design, and navigation, and the way info is presented, and community, and page organization, etc. etc. This means that brand promise, instead of being something "in the mind of a consumer" is actually something "in the clues through which a brand delivers."
Best digital branding is simply about creating contexts rich with social and cognitive clues that help people calculate benefits over costs of consuming a particular brand's products. Think all of those brand platforms and utilities that are around, from Pepsi Refresh to Nike+. Those brands know that ever slight manipulations in platforms' design can significantly change outcomes of people's decision making.
If people end up buying a ton more stuff in IKEA than they originally planned, that's because of design of its stores. And if people end up spending more money on FreshDirect than they wanted, that's because the "super-intuitive" navigation of its interface actually does not contain a single grocery item, only gourmet foods.
Digital media turn branding on its head. Brands can't just communicate brand promise to help people calculate online. After all, we all know that online advertising is not particularly effective. But they can do exactly the opposite: they can use all the ways in which a brand delivers to communicate it. After all, that's what that whole idea of 'moments of truth' is about.
In digital, brands have the same role as always. It's just branding that's completely different.
p.s. That kid creeps me out.