Expectations: What a Brand Promises

Abraham Lincoln once famously said, “You can fool all the people some of the time, and even some of the people all the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time.” He might have been talking about brand building. Lincoln knew that promises, and the expectations they create are powerful; so powerful in fact that people want to believe them. When those promises are kept, products get bought, customers are satisfied and everyone goes home happy. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way. In fact, most of the time it doesn’t. That’s because expectations are relatively cheap to create, but difficult to deliver on, and most companies don’t understand that expectations need to be fulfilled, and that all those promises have consequences. Far-reaching and often unforeseen consequences.

For instance, when American Honda took over the sponsorship of a new sports arena in Anaheim, fans who were interviewed about the move were thrilled. They even expressed the expectation that now that Honda had its name on the stadium, they were looking forward to cleaner restrooms and better food. Of course, Honda had nothing to do with the operations of the stadium, but such was the company’s reputation for quality that it spread to the hot dogs and the bathrooms.

But perhaps there is no better cautionary tale to illustrate the power of expectations, both fulfilled and otherwise, than that of one Eldrick Tiger Woods.

The hat at the top of this entry belongs to him, which you might have guessed. He is, after all, the world’s most recognized sports figure. But it wasn’t always that way. Back in 1996, when Woods was an untested PGA tour rookie with a windmill swing and a lot of potential, Nike signed him to what many thought then was a crazy endorsement deal: $40 million dollars over three years.

At this time, Nike had no golf club business, no golf ball business, not much of a golf apparel business to speak of, and only one golfer wearing their shoes, Curtis Strange. For all practically purposes, they had no golf business. And then a remarkable thing happened. Woods won the fourth professional tournament he played in. Then he started started to win, and win, and win, and he never looked back, putting himself at the very pinnacle of his sport. The #1 golfer in the world, by any measure.

And that’s when this crazy endorsement deal changed Nike’s business forever.

In a recent interview, Nike’s VP of Golf Marketing observed, “With Tiger’s ascension to world #1, and his out-and-out dominance of the sport, we very quickly realized, if we were going to put Tiger Woods’ name on anything, it not only had to be the very best we could make, it had to be the very best anyone in the industry could make.”

As the result of Tiger Woods’ involvement — and the expectations he forced Nike to set for every aspect of their golf business, that business looks very different now a decade or so later. In setting the bar for his own performance, Woods raised the bar for Nike’s, setting the stage for the company to become as dominant a force in the manufacturing and marketing of golf equipment and apparel. Today, Nike’s golf business is worth nearly a billion dollars a year.

But the expectations Woods set for himself (and by extension, his sponsors), did not match reality. That became abundantly clear when revelations of “transgressions” in his personal life came to light in a very public way in 2010. To their credit, Nike stood by the icon of golf they helped create. After all, it’s not the first time a Nike sponsored athlete has fallen from grace, albeit never from so lofty a height. Perhaps that’s because of Nike’s own brand as “the embodiment of sport”, they seem to be willing and even able to take a certain amount of controversy and even bad behavior in stride.

But other sponsors, whose connection to Woods’ prowess was more tenuous, like Accenture, for instance, were not so sanguine. That may have had something to do with the fact that the tagline on the Accenture campaign featuring Woods was, “Go ahead. Be a Tiger,” did not square up all that well with the allegations of infidelity.

It’s a shame, though, on every level. From a purely branding standpoint, expectations of Woods as a heroic figure were matched by his character (or at least, the impression of his character) and his performance as an athlete, right up until the moment he drove his car – and his life – into a tree. But that is the power expectations can have, for better and worse. Will Woods ever be regarded as highly again? Not likely. But he may win back a measure of his self-respect. It’s not all just about winning golf tournaments anymore. It’s about being human. And honest.

In decided what kinds of expectations you can set for organization’s brand, it’s important to keep the following considerations in mind.

Is it important? Is it something that will mean something to customers and prospects?

Is it true and demonstrable? Truth is the world’s most powerful marketing tool, and if what you say is true, then you can back it up and demonstrate it.

Is it aspirational? Is it something that will motivate your people to do their best?

Is it believable? Is this something you’ve earned the right to say?

Does it resonate with customers, employees, and shareholders? The expectations you create not only have to make sense externally, they have to make sense internally as well.

Does it create value? Can these expectations add value to your brand? Do they allow you to create programs and products that customers will pay for? Do they contribute to the store of good will in the marketplace?

These are just a few of the things we mean by “creating value.”

Finally, and perhaps most important, are these expectations something you can deliver  against? Because that brings us to the next phase of the brand building process.