When it comes to service delivery, image isn't everything. Nearly two-thirds of top brands - including Mercedes-Benz, Land Rover and Boots - do not live up to their reputations, while more than one-third perform far better than UK customers expect them to.
These are the findings of research from brand agency Promise, which compared brands' reputations with customers' experiences to measure the 'promise gap'. It asked 1000 consumers for their views on 100 brands, mostly top-spending brands with a strong service component, then compared image with reality in the Promise Index.
Overall, 62 companies in the sample are not living up to what customers expect of them, creating a negative promise gap, which Promise director Clare Fuller warns could be an indication of future trouble. 'Customers will readily seek greater satisfaction elsewhere if they are disappointed,' she says. 'The promises organisations make and keep to their customers, staff and other stakeholders are the most important determinants of their long-term success.'
Two brands - Hilton and MG Rover - are performing in line with their image and reputation, while 36, including Mazda and McDonald's, are doing better than expected, with a positive promise gap. But while a positive reading may sound like good news, it suggests there is work to be done by the marketing department to ensure perceptions keep pace with reality. 'If you set expectations too low, people will go elsewhere rather than give your brand a try,' says Fuller.
Of the 100 brands, McDonald's was ranked bottom for image and reputation, with a score of 4.55 out of 10. But when this is compared with its customer experience rating, it ended up with a positive promise gap of 0.92, putting it joint-second in the Promise Index. McDonald's has recently invested in healthier menus and refurbished outlets, but clearly perceptions of the brand are lagging.
Laurie Morgan, head of marketing at McDonald's UK, admits the chain has work to do. 'We are in the middle of a change programme that has had a fabulous response from customers, and recent sales growth reflects increasing customer satisfaction,' she says. 'We have come a long way in the past six months, but we know we have further to climb.'
Room for improvement
Similarly, KFC came fourth in the Promise Index, even though it was ranked 88th for image. 'We have a very good product, but our advertising needs improving,' admits brand director Matthew Critchley, who points to the 'Soul food' campaign as an attempt to raise expectations of what the company offers. 'You don't change perceptions overnight, but I would be worried if we were in the same position in a year's time.'
Some brands are tarnished by negative perceptions of their sector as a whole, which might partly explain First Choice's position at the top of the Promise Index, despite its 79th place in the reputation rankings - a position that has disappointed Sam Turnbull, marketing director at First Choice Holidays. 'Our research showed that our sponsorship of I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here in January created positive attitudes toward the brand, but this doesn't appear to have fed through into this research,' he says. 'The Promise Index certainly gives us some food for thought, but I think we have a big opportunity to capitalise on this.'
A negative promise gap is potentially much more dangerous, as it suggests that marketers set unrealistic brand promises and that they work in isolation from others in the business who are delivering the service. Mercedes-Benz topped the image and reputation index with a reading of 7.99, but it came bottom in the Promise Index with a gap of minus 1.14, indicating that service delivery falls well short of the brand promise.
Land Rover, Audi and Jaguar also suffered some of the biggest negative promise gaps, a discrepancy Promise ascribes to 'the pain of premium' - in other words, the brands are held in such high esteem that it is almost impossible for them to live up to consumer expectations.
Premium brands' heavy investment in an image that idealises the customer experience might be misguided, warns Fuller. 'The world is getting more realistic and value-oriented,' she argues. 'Witness the shift in consumer mindsets toward a view that low-cost air travel, rather than premium class, is the smart thing to do.'
Mark Ritson, assistant professor of marketing at London Business School, has a more prosaic explanation for the gap between the image and the customer's experience of luxury brands. 'In many cases the power of the brand seems to give staff the impression they can treat customers poorly,' he says.
The Promise Index identified little or no correlation between perceived image and advertising spend. Some of the biggest ad spenders, including Ford and DFS, scored dismally on image and reputation, while some low spenders, including Tesco and BMW, earned excellent image scores (see table, page 32). 'People clearly look beyond advertising when judging brands, which raises the question of whether companies are investing too much in their communications and too little in their customers,' says Fuller.
Ritson agrees, arguing that branding still suffers from an ivory-tower mentality. 'Marketers should be talking to human resources, customer service and operations,' he says. 'But they focus on the things they can control, with no idea what the brands are like at the service level. Branding should be about how the whole company behaves, from the chief executive to the £6-an-hour service staff.'
This is a message that more and more companies are taking on board - including, significantly, those with the biggest positive promise gaps.
At KFC, Critchley has stepped up the dialogue between marketing and human resources, new product development and operations people 'to ensure that our thinking is joined up'. The marketing and management teams, meanwhile, now spend more time working in the restaurants. 'It has become an increasingly important part of our philosophy that being with customers and understanding what they want from a transaction yields far better insights than more removed market research,' he says.
Similarly, the Inland Revenue - 10th in the Promise Index despite ranking 97th in terms of reputation - invests 'at least as much' in improving customers' experience as it does on product advertising, according to director of marketing and communications Ian Schoolar. Over the past three years, the Inland Revenue has worked hard to imbue its 80,000 staff with the organisation's core purposes: to ensure that everyone understands and receives what they are entitled to and what they owe; to ensure everyone contributes to the UK's needs; and to develop the body's personality as clear, human, objective, knowledgeable, efficient and reasonable. 'While our advertising, notably for self-assessment and tax credits, contributes to our enhanced image and service, the customers' direct experience is the most important factor,' says Schoolar.
Promise believes the ideal promise gap is between 0 and minus 0.2. 'It is OK to let customer expectations run ahead of reality, as long as reality is not far behind,' says Fuller. 'This means customers are always wanting more and getting it - though not exactly at the same moment. An ambitious organisation with a well-managed customer strategy could aim for a bigger gap than this without losing the support of its customers.'
Ritson disagrees. 'If perceptions are always a bit ahead of reality it means you are always letting your customers down,' he says. 'It should be the other way round: if you are constantly exceeding customers' expectations, you will delight them.'
Promise intends to update the index next year, and expects companies such as Tesco, Vodafone and the low-cost airlines to show a bigger promise gap as a combination of advertising and line or range extensions fuels high customer expectations. It warns that as these brands enter new product and service areas, they might find their delivery mechanisms under pressure.
Conversely, Promise expects companies such as Mercedes-Benz and British Airways to close their gaps. Both are trying to improve customer service - Mercedes-Benz by taking greater control of its UK distribution network, and BA by competing with its no-frills rivals on price, schedule and service.
Meanwhile, companies such as Tesco, Asda and BMW have established such strong relationships that customers have become 'fans' of their brands.
'They support their brands, they argue their corner for them and they stay faithful if things go wrong,' says Fuller. 'We suspect that some of the brands with the biggest positive promise gaps - such as Mazda - have a fan base they could develop to reap far greater commercial gains.'
Brands with significant negative promise gaps face a tougher challenge.
According to Future Foundation director Michael Willmott, over-promising and under-performing has generated a great deal of consumer dissatisfaction - a problem he blames on marketers. 'Marketing should be about managing expectations - not just up to the sale, but also the post-sale satisfaction and care,' he says. 'I have been in organisations where customer service and marketing don't speak to each other because customer service is seen as the department that resolves technical issues. They have to communicate better.'
In the meantime, it would serve marketers well to scrutinise their brands' image, experience and promise gap rankings. As Fuller concludes: 'Your promise gap might be the best early warning system you have.'
ESSENTIALS - SECTOR PROMISES.
The UK's supermarkets stand out as leaders in both the reputation and experience indexes, reflecting their remarkable success over the past 30 years. Yet they come joint bottom, with non-food retail, in terms of their promise gap. It could be that their performance has raised customers' expectations so high that they can never fully live up to them.
Perhaps because of poor publicity, the travel and leisure sector is one of only two sectors that give consumers a better experience than they expect (the other being airlines). It also includes two of the brands that come highest in exceeding customer expectations, First Choice and Lunn Poly, ranked first and eighth respectively in the Promise Index.
Banks and other financial services companies had no promise gap at all, implying that the service matches customer expectations. But they shouldn't take too much comfort from this, as they provided the lowest-scoring sector in terms of image - despite the huge sums they spend on advertising - and came next to bottom for customer experience.
Promise believes they are ranked so poorly because they consistently let the customer down - a hypothesis supported by the fact that brands with less baggage, such as Egg, rank higher than traditional players.
'There is no doubt that customers are still looking for a financial service provider that is on their side, but the sector's reputation has been dragged through the mud many times,' says Promise director Clare Fuller. 'There may be something here called the "serial disgrace factor" that has tarnished the whole sector.'
TOP 10 COMPANIES
Top companies by promise gap (ratings out of 10)
Brand Image Experience Gap
1 First Choice 5.74 7.03 +1.29
2= Mazda 5.89 6.81 +0.92
2= McDonald's 4.55 5.47 +0.92
4 KFC 5.22 6.06 +0.84
5 bmi 6.07 6.89 +0.82
6 AOL 5.21 6.01 +0.80
7 Egg 5.58 6.35 +0.77
8 Lunn Poly 5.94 6.63 +0.69
9 Intelligent Finance 5.24 5.87 +0.63
10 Inland Revenue 4.86 5.47 +0.61
BOTTOM 10 COMPANIES
Bottom companies by promise gap (ratings out of 10)
Brand Image Experience Gap
91 Volvo 6.83 6.16 -0.67
92 HSBC 6.69 6.01 -0.68
93 Jaguar 7.64 6.92 -0.72
94 Hyundai 5.81 4.99 -0.82
95= Audi 7.43 6.55 -0.88
95= Currys 6.58 5.70 -0.88
97 Boots 7.64 6.74 -0.90
98 PC World 6.11 5.14 -0.97
99 Land Rover 6.86 5.82 -1.04
100 Mercedes-Benz 7.99 6.85 -1.14
PROMISE GAP BY SECTOR
Image Experience Gap
Travel and leisure 6.14 6.38 +0.24
Airlines 6.28 6.45 +0.17
Financial services 5.80 5.80 0.00
Public sector 5.90 5.76 -0.14
Phones 6.34 6.09 -0.25
Cars 6.50 6.23 -0.27
Supermarkets 7.27 6.94 -0.33
Non-food retail 6.47 6.13 -0.34
CORRELATION WITH ADSPEND
Brand Adspend Position in
ranking 2003 image table
Ford 3 23
DFS 5 96
Vodafone 13 54
Tesco 19 6
BMW 34 2
AA 45 8
Source: Nielsen Media Research/Promise