Before we articulate our promissory account of brands, it will be useful to briefly discuss the nature of promises. Promises take many forms. Most commonly, promises take the form of an utterance: for example, by saying, “I promise I will do X,” this utterance, absent special circumstances, satisfies the conditions that generate an obligation to do X (hereafter, “promissory obligation”). However, for a promissory obligation to arise, the act need not always be expressed through an utterance. Certain acts generate the very same obligations that promises do: For instance, the act of sitting down and ordering food at a restaurant is a promise to pay for the meal, even if one never explicitly says, “I promise to pay for the meal.” In other words, certain actions express that one is undertaking a promise, and as a result generates an obligation to perform the promised action.
What’s special about promises is that by the mere fact of uttering a promise under certain conditions (or engaging in an action that expresses that one is undertaking a promise), one can bind oneself in ways that one is not ordinarily bound. For example, while picking up a friend from the airport is a nice thing to do, it is not something one is typically under a moral obligation to do (unlike, for example, the obligation not to unjustifiably harm others). However, if one promises to pick a friend up from the airport, one now is morally obligated to pick that friend up. In other words, promises are special in that they are voluntarily undertaken and generate obligations to perform an act that one would otherwise not be obligated to perform.
There are a number of accounts of promises: normative powers theories (e.g., Shiffrin’s (2008)), conventionalist theories (e.g., Hume (2001); Rawls (1955)), and interpersonal theories (e.g., Darwall (2009); Gilbert (2013)).Footnote 8 While each of these theories have significant pedigrees and prominent defenders (as well as their own difficulties), our preferred account of promising is T.M. Scanlon’s (1990, 1998) influential expectation theory of promises. This is because while the expectation theory of promises is grounded in an independently plausible normative theory, it is also articulated in largely naturalistic terms and can thus provide a useful theory for future researchers to study the empirical dimensions of our theory of brands as promise.Footnote 9
On Scanlon’s view, “the wrong of breaking a promise and the wrong of making a lying promise are instances of a more general family of moral wrongs which are concerned not with social practices but rather with what we owe to other people when we have led them to form expectations about our future conduct” (1998: 296). Specifically, the expectation theory of promises holds that promises generate obligations when the “principle of fidelity” is satisfied:
Principle of Fidelity: “If (1) A voluntarily and intentionally leads B to expect that A will do X (unless B consents to A's not doing so); (2) A knows that B wants to be assured of this; (3) A acts with the aim of providing this assurance, and has good reason to believe that he or she has done so; (4) B knows that A has the intentions and beliefs just described; (5) A intends for B to know this, and knows that B does know it; (6) B knows that A has this knowledge and intent, then, in the absence of special justification, A must do X unless B consents to X's not being done” (Scanlon, 1990: 208).Footnote 10
These conditions pick out the kind of activities that are governed by the principle of fidelity (including promises) and articulate the normative implications of any activity that satisfies these conditions. On Scanlon’s account, promissory obligation is a “special case of a wider category of duties and obligations regarding the expectations that we lead others to form about what we intend to do” (1998: 295).
According to Scanlon’s expectation theory of promises, the key value implicated in our promissory practices is the value of assurance—this is what justifies the principle of fidelity. To better understand the value of assurance that justifies the principle of fidelity (and in turn, renders promise keeping obligatory), it can be helpful to draw a contrast to a different sort of situation, one where promissory obligation is not generated, even if there may be a different sort of obligation generated. Consider a situation in which one has “intentionally or negligently led someone to expect that one is going to follow a certain course of action, X, and one has good reason to believe that that person will suffer significant loss as a result of this expectation if one does not follow X” (Scanlon, 1998: 300–301)—in such a situation, one ought to take certain reasonable measures to prevent the loss in question—this is what Scanlon calls the “principle of loss prevention”. Depending on the context, the specific reasonable measure to prevent the loss can range from warning the person that the expected action will not be performed to compensating that person for his or her loss (Scanlon, 1998: 301).Footnote 11
But notice that the principle of fidelity that undergirds promissory obligation is importantly different from the principle of loss prevention. With promises, one cannot escape the obligation merely by warning the promisee that one has changed one’s mind, or by compensating the promisee for the loss—both of those routes would be better than doing nothing, but nevertheless, in both cases, an obligation is still violated (Scanlon, 1998: 301). As Scanlon puts it, “the obligation one undertakes when one makes a promise is an obligation to do the thing promised, not simply to do it or to compensate the promisee accordingly…The central concern of the morality of promises is therefore with the obligation to perform; the idea of compensation is of at most secondary interest” (1998: 301). For this reason, to capture promissory obligation, one requires a stronger principle than the principle of loss prevention: this is precisely the role that the principle of fidelity fulfills. The principle of fidelity secures a more robust sort of assurance than what is secured by the weaker principle of loss prevention.
As noted, the obligation to comply with the principle of fidelity is grounded in the value of assurance. There are multiple reasons for caring about the value of assurance. One important reason is the ability to “rely on these assurances in deciding what to do” (Scanlon, 1998: 303), and wanting the freedom from worry that this assurance provides. Another reason to care about the value of assurance arises not from any experiential comfort the assurance provides, but rather, from the mere fact of “[wanting] certain things to happen…[promisees] want to be given assurances, and they care about whether these assurances are genuine” (Scanlon, 1998: 303). Crucially, because of the reasons promisees have for wanting assurance, this also gives reasons to prospective promisers to want to be able to deliver that assurance (Scanlon, 1998: 303). Thus, on Scanlon’s account, the reasons both promisers and promisees have with respect to the value of assurance is what generates a duty to comply with the principle of fidelity.
Scanlon’s expectation theory of promises is “widely influential” (Habib, 2018), having influenced a number of theoretical investigations, including the philosophy of cooperation (Tuomela, 2013), medical oaths (Sulmasy, 1999), and the ethics of migration (Hosein, 2019). Indeed, even critics of Scanlon’s expectation theory have characterized it as “pioneering work” (Kolodny & Wallace, 2003: 119) that has “reinvigorated debate about the nature and grounds” (Deigh, 2002: 483) of promissory obligation. We now turn our attention to how Scanlon’s expectation theory informs our promissory account of brands.
On our promissory reframing of brands, brands are a constellation of normatively binding expectations (in virtue of satisfying the principle of fidelity). As Scanlon points out, uttering the words “I promise” is not a necessary part of generating the same obligation that is issued when uttering a promise: “It is enough that the conditions of intention and mutual knowledge specified in [the principle of fidelity] be fulfilled” (1998: 305) and that “the conditions of expectation and knowledge that [the principle of fidelity] specifies can be fulfilled in many ways other than by making a promise” (1998: 306). So, let’s now turn to the conditions that the principle of fidelity articulates. We will illustrate how they are satisfied in branding processes using the example of the brand of the Volvo Group (“Volvo”).Footnote 12
A voluntarily and intentionally leads B to expect that A will do X (unless B consents to A's not doing so).
On our promissory account, when a firm creates or sustains a brand, this involves voluntarily and intentionally engendering a set of expectations surrounding what the firm will do. For example, the associations that make up Volvo’s brand involves the series of expectations that Volvo intentionally and voluntarily creates, including, but not limited to, the expectation that it will prioritize the safety of its vehicles. In other words, Volvo intentionally and voluntarily creates the expectation that its cars are made to be among the safest in the industry, among other expectations.
A knows that B wants to be assured of this.
Firms know that consumers want assurance of the expectations they have created about their products or services. Assurance is “the value of having the matter settled” (Scanlon, 1990: 206), or alternatively, the value of being able to rely on the expected action, or not needing to devote further thought or worry to the matter at hand.
A prospective car buyer who is concerned about safety and has come to expect safety from Volvo wants assurance that this expectation is justified: this is, after all, the very reason for Consumer Reports, JD Power & Associates, and the widespread prevalence of consumer reviews. In short, firms know that consumers want assurance that the expectations they’ve come to form about a firm’s product or service will not be unjustified and will accurately map onto what the firm will in fact do. Consumers don’t want to have to devote further cognitive or monetary resources to investigate the justifiability of the expectation in question (in this case, the expectation that the car will be a safe one).
A acts with the aim of providing this assurance, and has good reason to believe that he or she has done so.
Companies commonly act to assure consumers of the expectations they elicit. Sometimes this is done by imploring prospective consumers to look for a certain logo, slogan, or emblem. Other times, firms are even more explicit in the assurance they offer.
Volvo, too, acts with the aim of providing this assurance (i.e., about the expectation of safety in their vehicles) and has good reason to believe it has done so. Indeed, Volvo’s website (2019) prominently notes, “Personal safety is at the heart of Volvo’s purpose,” and that its vision holds that “no one should be seriously injured or killed in a new Volvo car,” and finally that “the guiding principle behind everything we make at Volvo therefore is, and must remain, safety.”
Clearly, Volvo aims to assure consumers that their expectations of safety are well founded and that consumers need not devote further thought to this expectation. Given that firms also commonly hire large marketing teams to effectively provide this assurance, it is plausible that firms have good reason to believe that they have provided the assurance in question.
B knows that A has the intentions and beliefs just described.
Most consumers know that firms intend to assure them of the expectations they’ve formed and also realize that firms often believe they have given the assurance in question. Another way to put the point is that consumers realize that they are being marketed to in ways that seek to assure them. This plausibly qualifies as consumers knowing that firms have the intention and beliefs associated with aiming to provide assurance about their products or services. This condition is straightforwardly satisfied by the very nature of marketing: consumers know that firms intend to assure them that what they’ve come to expect about the firm’s products or services are well justified. This is supported by a significant body of empirical research about consumer beliefs regarding company advertisements (Boush et al., 1994; Calfee & Ringold, 1994; Coulter et al., 2001; Friestad & Wright, 1995; Petty & Cacioppo, 1986; Soh et al., 2009).
A intends for B to know this, and knows that B does know it.
The very fact that logos, emblems, and other brand markers are often visible and sometimes even explicitly communicated assurances (e.g., Verizon’s “the most reliable network”) suggests that firms intend for consumers to know about the assurance they are attempting to provide through their logos, emblems, color schemes, markers, and communications (and also know that any consumer who comes across the logo or marker in question will know that that is their aim). In the case of Volvo, this is again clear with its public remarks to consumers. The Volvo website notes (2019), “Our focus on protecting and caring for people has made Volvo Cars a leader in safety.” It is clear that Volvo intends for consumers to know that its aim is to assure consumers of its product’s safety.
B knows that A has this knowledge and intent, then, in the absence of special justification, A must do X unless B consents to X's not being done.
The final condition of Scanlon’s account provides the key normative content to our promissory reframing. When a firm sustains, creates, or cultivates a brand, this involves generating or maintaining a series of associations. A theory of brands on the traditional view holds these associations are merely a shared set of perceptions and attitudes. On our promissory reframing, these associations also involve a shared series of normatively binding expectations. They are normatively binding, because firms voluntarily and intentionally create a series of expectations in their consumers (and prospective consumers) in a way that satisfies the principle of fidelity.
Satisfying the conditions associated with the principle of fidelity, in the case of promises, is what generates a moral obligation to fulfill the expectation generated by the promise. It is also what, as Scanlon puts it, gives the promisee a “right to rely” on what was promised (Scanlon, 1998: 305). Similarly, when companies satisfy the conditions associated with the principle of fidelity when creating, sustaining, or cultivating a brand, a firm takes on an obligation: in particular, an obligation to satisfy the expectations that, in part, constitute the brand. It is also what gives customers the moral right to rely on the expectations that constitute the brand being satisfied.
So, when Volvo creates the expectation of safety in its vehicles in a way that satisfies the principle of fidelity, Volvo now assumes an obligation to create cars that are in fact safe. Violating the expectations that constitute brands are ethically akin to breaking a promise, given that the principle of fidelity is what explains the wrongness of breaking a promise (Scanlon, 1990, 1998). Just as promises generate moral obligations to satisfy the expectations expressed through the promise, brands have a moral obligation to satisfy the expectations that are constitutive of the brand. Given that brands plausibly satisfy the principle of fidelity, we can and should understand brands as ethically akin to promises, which is to say, brands are governed by the same moral principle that governs the ethics of promises.
A few clarifications are in order. First, although consent, agreement, expectations, and other concepts linked to Scanlon’s expectation theory of promises play an important role in our account and also play an important role in contract theory, we explicitly disavow our account to be understood as a legal account. This is not to say theories of promises cannot illuminate theories of contracts: as Scanlon points out, “The similarity between a promise and a contract is so obvious that it is natural to suppose that there is much to be learned about one of these notions by studying the other, or even that the legal notion of a contract can be understood by seeing it as based on the moral idea of a promise” (2001: 86). Indeed, Charles Fried’s (2015) famous theory of contracts does just that—it understands contracts by way of promises. So, while promises surely can be helpful for understanding the nature of contracts, promises stand on their own. Importantly, Scanlon’s theory of promises is not the same as a theory of contracts, although his account is indeed relevant to developing a theory of contracts (as he does). As he notes, “Even if…there are obvious similarities between the idea of a promise and that of a legal contract, important differences between the two notions are also apparent. While promises do not…presuppose a social institution of agreement-making, the law of contracts obviously is such an institution. Moreover, it is an institution backed by the coercive power of the state, and one that, unlike the morality of promises, is centrally concerned with what is to be done when contracts have not been fulfilled” (Scanlon, 2001: 99). The critical point for our purposes is that our promissory account of brands does not hold that brands create legal contracts with consumers; thus, our claim is not that legal obligations are generated in virtue of our account. Our promissory view is less formal and holds that brands, in virtue of satisfying the principle of fidelity, are ethically akin to promises.
Second, our aim is not to suggest that our theory alone identifies the specific promissory content, as it were, of a given brand. We note here that there is likely heterogeneity in both brand building actions, and in consumer interpretations of those actions. Brands use various methods and forms of communication to market their products. Some of these forms may seem more like promises than others. In addition, we acknowledge that consumers may interpret various forms of communication differently and there is a fair amount of ambiguity in how branding activities are interpreted. For example, while we claim that Volvo is creating an expectation of safety, we recognize that there are likely many varying conceptions of what safety is: safer than a competitor’s car, safer than flying, completely safe from any defects, etc. All of these various interpretations can create different expectations in consumer minds and hence likely have implications for whether Volvo is meeting the expectations it has created. This empirical process of detailing exactly what these expectations are is beyond the scope of this paper. Instead, we focus simply on the fact that some expectation is created by a brand that is ethically akin to a promise. We invite further research, as described more below, to empirically illuminate what exactly the details of these expectations are. In other words, we have not here exhaustively spelled out the content of the entire set of expectations that constitute Volvo’s brand. Our aim has chiefly been to provide the structure of an account of brands, but one that reframes branding activity in a way that is theoretically and practically illuminating.
Third, to be sure, some (or even all) of the perceptions and attitudes surrounding a company and its offerings that the traditional view might identify with a particular brand could remain a part of the story. Some of these perceptions or attitudes might figure into, or give rise to, the normatively binding expectations. However, on our promissory reframing, we expand the singular focus of marketers on consumer perceptions and attitudes by putting at the forefront the normative enterprise of the voluntary and intentional creation of binding expectations.
Fourth, as in everyday life, one can promise to do all sorts of wrongful activities. If I promise to murder someone on behalf of a friend, this doesn’t generate any reason to murder. So, for there to be moral reason to do that thing, the promise must be with respect to something that is itself morally permissible. Furthermore, the mere fact that a promise was made does not mean that one has, all things considered, reason to do that thing—there are plausibly extenuating circumstances under which promissory obligation can justifiably be overridden.
With these clarifications aside, let’s turn to the advantages of a promissory account of brands. In “The Current Treatment of Brands and the Problem it Faces”, we discussed a difficulty for a theory of brands when viewed exclusively through the traditional lens: it creates an explanatory problem. We will now show how adding the promissory lens to our conceptual toolkit allows for a theory of brands that avoids this problem.
Remedying the Explanatory Problem
The explanatory problem arises for the traditional view because it has difficultly explaining the presence of moralized responses in the wake of certain branding behavior, such as the moral reactive attitudes to the Nike and Gillette campaigns discussed above. Our promissory reframing of brands allows for an explanation of these moralized responses. Prior to Nike’s and Gillette’s brand activist campaigns, consumers would have had a reasonably stable and settled set of expectations about these companies. And both Nike and Gillette would have intentionally cultivated these expectations of their firms with careful attention through large branding teams.
The moral significance of the principle of fidelity is driven by the value of assurance. In the case of Nike and Gillette, over time, the stability of these expectations would have given consumers the assurance that they need not be on watch for the companies engaging in strong brand activism that might be at odds with consumers’ personal views on the respective issues. Because consumers buy products in part to express agreement with a company’s positions, their decisions of where to spend or not spend money are thought to express endorsement of a company’s position (Elliott & Wattanasuwan, 1998; Reed, 2002; Reed et al., 2012). And the stability of the expectations is what provides the value of assurance to consumers that they needn’t continuously monitor a company’s behavior and continually update their expectations, in order to avoid expressing endorsement of something they would not want to endorse.
Thus, on the promissory view, the recent advertisement campaigns of Nike and Gillette withdrew the assurance that a previously stable set of expectations provided. And doing so wronged their consumers, even if one accepts that the causes Nike and Gillette championed were worth supporting. It was wrong due to violating the obligation generated by the principle of fidelity, the violation of which also explains the wrong in breaking a promise. Crucially, as most contemporary scholars recognize, blame, paradigmatically expressed through indignation and resentment, is an apt response to being wronged (Coates & Tognazzini, 2012a, 2012b; Fritz & Miller, 2018; Hieronymi, 2004; McKenna, 2012; Priest, 2016; Scanlon, 2008; Wallace, 1994; Wallace et al., 2011). Thus, this is what explains the moralized consumer responses in the wake of these branding campaigns: consumers were wronged.
We now consider two important objections to viewing brands through the promissory lens. First, one might point out that even in the Nike and Gillette cases, there is significant variance in consumer responses: although some were outraged by Nike and Gillette, there were plenty of consumers who were not outraged, and many who responded positively to these companies championing the cause of social justice. And this, seems to be a problem for our account: if Nike and Gillette wronged their consumers by violating a promise, why wasn’t everyone outraged?
At this point, it is worth emphasizing that our framing is a decidedly normative one. We are not arguing that in every instance where there is a promissory violation we should predict moral outrage. Rather, we are arguing that brands are, ethically speaking, akin to promises, and thus, when firms violate promises, this renders appropriate the reactive attitudes, responses that are widely regarded as apt reactions to wrongdoing. So, our account simultaneously explains and justifies these responses.Footnote 13
This ability to simultaneously explain and justify is not especially unique to the brand context and would be seen even in garden variety instances of promise breaking. For example, if one were to break a promise to attend a family gathering, some family members might respond with outrage, but others might simply respond with resignation, or not respond at all. But the point is that the reactive attitudes would be appropriate, not that people must respond with these attitudes or that these attitudes would be predicted. If we see someone who is outraged at a family member for breaking a promise to attend the family gathering, the broken promise is what simultaneously explains that person’s response, but also justifies it.
Furthermore, the fact of the promissory violation is not the only consideration that bears on an individual’s response. While the promissory violation might provide one moral reason that renders indignation apt, expressing this indignation can be outweighed by other considerations. For example, while the normatively binding expectations violated by Gillette might provide some grounds for indignation, this is not the only thing that matters to consumers. They might care more about the utilitarian features of Gillette’s offerings, such as its effective razors and competitive pricing, just as well as they might care about the other corporate initiatives Gillette has pursued (e.g., environmental initiatives). Something similar is seen in ordinary cases of promise keeping. If I promise to pick my friend up from the airport in my Buick, but instead send a chauffeur in a Rolls-Royce limousine to pick my friend up, in a sense, I have broken my promise to my friend, but my friend might not respond with outrage—indeed my friend might be elated.Footnote 14
The second objection is that on a promissory account of brands, firms cannot permissibly engage in brand activism without behaving in a way that is ethically akin to violating a promise. This is not quite right. Firms can create normatively binding expectations with respect to issues related to brand activism at their inception or while they are in the early stages of building their brand. In these early stages, firms have not intentionally created a stable set of expectations. Thus, they are not making a promise with respect to any issues related to their brand activism. As long as they make clear before the stability of associations sets in, that they intend to make such political statements, they are not acting in a way akin to breaking a promise.
Indeed several firms have taken this route. The following are some examples: Patagonia, which has historically created expectations of pro-environment stances—its mission statement according to the Patagonia website (2020) is “We’re in business to save our home planet”; Chick-fil-A, whose Christian foundations are clear in its self-described corporate purpose: “To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us” (Jurevicius, 2013); and Impossible Foods, which was established to directly counteract the effects of factory farming: “[U]sing animals to make meat is a prehistoric and destructive technology” (Impossible Foods, 2020a). When these companies then make statements against anti-environmental politicians, contribute to anti-gay marriage legislation, or claim that “we gotta use every tool at our disposal to eliminate the need for animal agriculture” (Impossible Foods, 2020b), respectively, they have not destabilized the normatively binding expectations they had previously created. These were the expectations from the get-go.
Of course, not all companies can or do engage in brand activism at the outset by making their moral, social, or political views clear. Our account, however, does not entirely preclude these companies from engaging in brand activism as a part of their marketing strategy, but it points to some procedural requirements. In the next section, we discuss the procedural requirements firms must satisfy when they intend to destabilize existing expectations—that is, when rebranding—including, but not limited to, when engaging in brand activism.