Mind the gap

The gap between consumers’ perceptions of a brand’s image and the actual experience, as measured by The Promise Index, raises some tricky questions for marketers.

Car brands are letting their advertising exceed the reality of the product experience, according to this year’s Promise Index, revealed exclusively in Marketing Week. The survey, which examines the gap between a brand’s image and the actual customer experience, reveals that the automotive sector is one industry which is failing to impress consumers.

Automotive brands account for six of the bottom ten when it comes to the difference between image and experience. This is in contrast to last year’s study (MW September 23, 2009), which suggested that car brands were doing a good job of matching their marketing profile with the reality.

Konstantin Pinaev, senior consultant at Promise, says the change in consumer attitudes may be a result of the UK moving out of recession. People’s expectations last year were lower in general.

“People started valuing things a bit more in the recession and appreciated them more. And a lot of the advertising became very value-driven. Consumers felt like they were getting better value for money. So experience of brands went up across the board,” he says.

This year’s poor performance is partly because premium car brands have fairly aspirational images and are one-off purchases, adds John Gunn, consultant at Promise. Consumers expect more for their money. And with marketing budgets no longer under such harsh scrutiny, a rise in the survey’s brand image ratings may be due to more being spent on campaigns than in the previous year.

“As we come out of recession, consumers have higher expectations and I think that rather than just focusing on the driving experience, consumers are looking at the purchase, the dealership experience and the ethical credentials,” he says. “Because of the way the industry works with franchise dealerships, that could be letting consumers down.”

Toyota is an exception to this rule, with the experience of the brand being more positive than its image, so it does not sit in the bottom ten negative “gaps” ratings with the other car brands. Gunn says: “Toyota’s image has plummeted due to its brakes issue and product recall.

People’s experience of the brand became more negative but less so than its image. So it has a positive promise gap – although it is less desirable for a brand to have this at the expense of its image.”

Ryanair is another brand where experience outweighs image, according to Promise. But for the airline, the gap is more significant than for Toyota. It is in the bottom 20 of the 160 brands surveyed in terms of having a positive gap between experience and image. But this is because the airline talks mainly about price, rather than its brand values. As its chief executive Michael O’Leary admits: “The more we can sound nasty, petty and cheap, the more we can reinforce in people’s minds that we are extremely bloody cheap and they will choose to fly with us.”

Gunn says: “Ryanair has an interesting strategy where it doesn’t promise anything [in terms of brand image] and then anything it does deliver is seen as an over-delivery. It has also benefited from BA’s woes to a certain extent.”

Other value brands have also done well in the survey, with experience almost matching image for Asda and Argos. But leisure deals website Lastminute.com has fared less well, falling into the top ten list of brands with the largest gaps between experience and image, where the experience is poorer than the perception.

Gunn suggests that other discount websites have overtaken the brand by offering better reductions. He says: “Lastminute.com has been pushing its wider services, such as restaurants and theatre tickets, aimed at consumers who are staying at home rather than jetting off. This is a far more competitive arena, especially when with the likes of Vouchercloud and Toptable, for example. As a value brand, perhaps expectations are not currently being met.”

Brands that have a positive gap – where consumers say their experience is better than the brand’s reputation – include Best Buy, the NHS and Pizza Express. Electronics retailer Best Buy is a new entrant to the UK market, so it is understandable that it might have less of a reputation than more established brands, where customer experience counts for more.

For the first time, the study includes social media brands Twitter and Facebook, which perform poorly in comparison to other online names. Twitter is at the bottom of the Promise Index, but this could be because it is a relatively new brand – and one that is not used at a mass level yet.

Twitter also performs relatively poorly compared to more established brands such as Google and Amazon. But Gunn warns that marketers’ perceptions of social media may differ from what consumers think. “We are potentially in a media bubble and, as these brands make quite a lot of noise, it could be easy to get carried away.”

He adds that consumer perceptions of these brands are quite polarising too. “There are huge brand ambassadors who are really passionate about them but then you have others who are not keen at all. Facebook is the more established brand, but Twitter does not appeal to a mass audience and has divided consumers,” he says.

Negative news stories may also have contributed to the online brands demonstrating a poor image. Facebook, for example, has recently attracted headlines such as “Facebook pork party protest banned by Paris officials” and “It’s Facebook’s fault that I’m all alone on a Saturday night”, which contribute to a more negative image.

“This is a bit like a reality check. The mass market [social media brands] are yet to win hearts and minds,” says Pinaev.
But many brands do use social media to communicate with their consumers, including Ocado (see The Frontline, page 25), which has risen 26 places up the Promise Index, showing that it matches consumer expectations well in both image and experience.

Pinaev also singles out Virgin Mobile as an interesting case – it does well in terms of overall image and experience, outperforming its competitor T-Mobile, even though it uses the T-Mobile network to provide the coverage.

“Although they both run on the same network, Virgin does a lot better in terms of image scores. Virgin Mobile seems a bit cooler but surprisingly does better on experience as well, which happens year after year,” he says.

This discrepancy suggests that a brand’s image remains key. Although consumer experience is important, the marketing does colour how people perceive their interactions with the brand. So both image and experience must be kept high for brands to find financial success. Ultimately, investing in a brand means marketers can help keep their promises.

the frontline


Jon Williams
Commercial director, Toyota GB

I am delighted to see the endorsement of what we know to be the reality experienced by the owners of our vehicles. Their confidence and experience of ownership is reflected in studies such as the recent [annual automotive] JD Power survey.

The Aygo and Yaris ranked top in the city car and small car categories, and the full hybrid Prius was second ranked in the upper medium car category. We aim to convince the remaining doubters to overcome any prejudice and have them judge the brand on the quality reported by the owners.

Mark Fells
UK & Ireland marketing director, Lastminute.com

If you look at the brands in the bottom ten, there are some with some hugely positive brand metrics. I am a little bit disappointed that we are in that list, but having seen the other brands there, part of the issue might be that we have very high awareness and that sets us a challenge in terms of delivery. We see that as a positive challenge.

This year our market has gone through a unique set of challenges, for example, the ash cloud. We worked phenomenally hard for our customers, but that was completely unprecedented. We dealt with it well, but it wasn’t a great experience for anyone, regardless of who they travelled with.

Our website gets close to 1.7 million visits a week and we’ve been around for 12 years. People are really positive about the brand – our Facebook group has more than 70,000 fans and we get some really warm messages back from customers.

Our biggest category is hotels and we have made some changes in terms of the user experience, so people get a list back much more quickly and they are laid out more clearly. Tripadvisor is built in and pricing is very clearly laid out.
We measure customer satisfaction in many ways and in a lot of detail. We are trying to take people’s free time and turn it into great time, which is a really big promise and we don’t apologise for that.

Jon Rudoe
Head of retail, Ocado

Ocado continues to work hard in terms of both driving service innovation and engaging customers. For example, we have recently launched our Ocado On The Go iPhone and Android mobile applications as well as our website’s “rate and review” facility.

We have also used social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter, and have a digital team to respond to customer queries and help them get close to our brand and its values. We feel we are offering an engaging alternative to the traditional supermarket experience.

Kevin Styles
UK marketing director, Best Buy

The result [that the consumer perception of the brand is less positive than the actual experience] is as expected, as Best Buy is so new to the UK and many consumers are yet to experience what we have to offer.

Feedback from customers who have visited a store has shown that we are meeting and exceeding expectations in terms of value for money, products, deals and overall experience. Awareness of the brand is also increasing.

We’ve invested a lot of time and energy in understanding the British market and the needs of the consumer. This extends to our marketing campaigns, which we researched thoroughly and at several stages ahead of launch.


The Promise Index involved independent research company Populus talking to 1,245 consumers in the UK. These people were asked to rate brands from 0 to ten in terms of image and experience. They were asked to take quality, service and value for money into account when answering for image and reputation. Customers of brands were asked to consider their most recent experience of that brand.

The gap between experience and image was then measured, resulting in a list of those brands which have “positive gaps”, where experience is better than image, and “negative gaps”, where experience is poorer than image.

Brands with a positive promise gap – where the experience of a brand is greater than its image – from largest gap to smallest

  1. Opodo
  2. Royal Mail
  3. AXA
  4. DirectGov
  5. Home Choice
  6. NHS
  7. Best Buy
  8. Four Seasons
  9. Toyota
  10. Pizza Express

(source: Promise)

Brands with the biggest negative gaps – where experience is poorer than image – from largest gap to smallest

  1. Alfa Romeo
  2. Suzuki
  3. Barclays
  4. British Gas
  5. Sony
  6. Lexus
  7. Fiat
  8. BMW
  9. Audi
  10. Lastminute.com

(source: Promise)


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