Sep 06, 2023

Branding fundamentals: essence & promise

By: Josh Dougherty

Branding Marketing Strategy


This is the first of a series of posts unpacking the key concepts at the core of your brand strategy. At A Brave New, we call these your brand drivers.

A company is only as important as the memory it leaves in its customers’ minds. And each business must curate that memory diligently. That’s difficult to do if you aren’t clear on what that memory should be, which is where the brand drivers come in.

Brand drivers have their roots in the Integrated Branding method. We think of them in simple terms: Brand drivers are the building blocks at the center of your brand that define what makes you unique and memorable. Stated another way, while your mission and vision are what you do and what you are trying to accomplish, your brand drivers are the unique way that you accomplish your mission and vision.

In this series, we’ll be spending time unpacking each of the following brand drivers:

  1. Essence & promise (this post)
  2. Core attributes
  3. Positioning statement
  4. Personality
  5. Benefit ladder
  6. Decision-making filter

Today we’ll tackle brand essence and promise.

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What is a brand essence? How about a brand promise?

Essence and promise are the two most important concepts in a brand. They are the conceptual center from which everything else is built. 

Before we dive too deep, let’s define essence. 

A brand essence is the connecting thread that runs through everything that a company does. This is the main “memory” that the company wants to leave their customers with every time they interact with them. It is the core concept behind the brand. For Disney it's “magic,” for Harley Davidson it's “freedom.”

Now that we are all working from the same definition, let’s talk about what makes a good brand essence. From my experience, there are four factors that should be considered when building out your essence:


ABN - Branding fundamentals - icon1Is it grounded in reality and is it aspirational? Great essences balance delicately between the current state of your business and your aspirations for the future. If the essence is too future focused, you won’t be able to live it out now. If it’s too focused on your current state, it won’t push you to be the best version of yourself. A good rule of thumb is that it should be 50% grounded in your current reality and 50% aspirational.

ABN - Branding fundamentals - icon2Is it applicable across your entire business? Essence needs to transcend absolutely everything you do. Why? Because it is supposed to encapsulate the unique way that a company shows up in the world. This essence should be applicable whether we’re talking about HR processes or designing a new product or service. In fact, in the best circumstances, it should serve as a filter to decide whether an initiative should be pursued (more on that in a future post).

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Is it enduring? A strong brand essence should be capable of growing with you over time. This doesn’t mean that your brand will remain stagnant. Outward expressions of your brand will change, but the core essence remains the same.


ABN - Branding fundamentals - icon4Can you live it out 100%? A brand essence will only have an impact if you live it out fully—from your processes to your service design to your people management and to your public-facing marketing and branding. If you can’t fully lean into the essence you’ve come up with, you probably need to go back to the drawing board. The only thing worse than having no intentional brand is to implement a half-baked brand.


Now that we’ve tackled brand essence, let’s talk about brand promise. Here’s a simple definition:

A brand promise is the promise that a company makes and keeps in every interaction with its customers. Think of this as the thing that customers can always expect from a company, the thing they can depend on the company to deliver, regardless of the size or importance of the interaction.   

I would consider the same four factors mentioned above when evaluating your brand essence: 


ABN - Branding fundamentals - icon5Is it grounded in reality and is it aspirational? While we said that an essence can be 50% true of your current reality and 50% aspirational, the promise needs to be grounded a bit more in reality. Why? Because fulfilling this promise in every interaction is going to be the primary method for building trust and brand loyalty with your customers.

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Is it applicable across your entire business? Just like the essence, the promise needs to be solution agnostic. In a way it needs to speak on an emotional level about what customers can expect when they choose to become part of your tribe.

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Is it enduring? This is fairly obvious. Your essence needs to be something that you can repeat and reinforce over many years. 


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Can you live it out 100%? Even more than your essence, you must commit to your promise and fulfill it completely. One of the things your customers will be able to sniff from a mile away is insincerity. You must live out this promise not only with consistency but also with authenticity.



Why do brand essence and brand promise matter?

In his book, Zag: The #1 Strategy of High-Performance Brands, Marty Neumeier shared three poignant statements relevant to this conversation:

        1. “Today’s real competition doesn’t come from other companies but from the extreme clutter of the marketplace.”
  1. “The human mind deals with clutter the best way it can — by blocking most of it out. What’s left, the stuff that seems most useful or interesting, gets labeled and stored in mental boxes.”
  2. “Customer loyalty is not a program. It starts with companies being loyal to customers — not the other way around — and only becomes mutual when customers feel they’ve earned the loyalty they’re receiving from the company.”

Neumeier wrote these words 16 years ago, but they are more true today than they were then. The world has only accelerated in this direction.

Quotes 1 and 2 explain why the essence is important. You must battle through clutter each and every day to get noticed. Your brand essence is that core idea that makes you unique from everyone else. It’s key to being noticed and remembered.

If you’re brave enough to stick with your essence, and you have the tenacity to follow through over time, you’ll start to rise above the noise and be remembered by your audience. Make no mistake, this work is memory curation, and those who excel at it win.

Quote 3 is the reason a brand promise is essential. No customer owes you their loyalty. You have to earn it by following through on your brand promise over time. That follow-through will eventually earn your customer’s trust, which will safeguard the future of your business.

What does this look like in real life?

Ok, it’s time to take this from concept down into practice. Let’s use Salesforce as a case study. Keep the following in mind as we proceed: no one publishes their complete brand strategy. I am making some educated guesses based on publicly available information. Luckily, Salesforce has provided us with a nice guide if we’re interested in learning more.


Brand Essence: Bridge building or connecting

If you look at anything produced by Salesforce, the focus is on one thing and one thing alone: helping Salesforce customers build connections with their customers. 

This brand essence is so believable because it flows through everything they do. It’s also the essence of a CRM product. A CRM is essentially a connection machine, allowing companies to build connections with customers at scale.


Brand Promise: Helping our customers make their customers happier

With their promise, Salesforce has gotten more specific. The promise focuses on the outcome that Salesforce customers can expect each and every time they interact with the company. The power behind this promise is obvious for anyone who either owns or runs a business, no matter the size. Happy customers equal trust, trust equals loyalty, loyalty equals MRR (monthly recurring revenue), MRR equals long-term security.

Do you see what Salesforce has done here? They’ve taken a relatively unexciting product (a CRM, and a sometimes clunky one, at that) and turned it into something of deep value. They’ve even created some level of emotional connection.


How to start defining your brand essence and promise?

If you are ready to start defining your brand essence and brand promise, I encourage you to start by asking yourself one question:

What are you really selling? 

Once you can answer this question with clarity, you’ll be able to start crafting your essence and promise.

If you have trouble answering this bigger question, read this post, then try to answer these questions first:

1. What emotions have my customers expressed after doing business with me? 

2. What emotions do I want them to experience?

3. What unique benefits do they receive that connect them very solidly with me?

4. What is it that my buyer needs most from me?

5. How do people look at themselves differently when they use my product or service? Do they feel smarter? Do they feel more empowered?


Once you’ve worked through these five questions, go back to the bigger question. The answer to the question “What are you really selling?” is your brand essence. The promise should flow from that.

Once you have some ideas written down, share them with some trusted collaborators.  In my experience, developing your own brand is extremely difficult, even if you do it for a living. You need to bounce your ideas off someone with more distance from the problem before deciding if a concept has merit.

Thanks for reading this first post on branding fundamentals. Check back soon for the next post on core attributes.

If you want to learn more about A Brave New’s approach to branding, check out our guide: The secret to an accelerated branding process. 


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