Whenever I speak to audiences, or conduct qualitative research, I ask a simple question as an icebreaker. “What have you been thinking about today?”

I give them a chance to ponder, move on to another topic and then come back to the question giving them a chance to volunteer answers.

“My mortgage is late.”

“I have to get my daughter to soccer practice.”

“What’s for lunch?”

Occasionally, they reference a product category. Almost never, does someone answer with a brand. Or even near a brand. This is far from scientific. Even at executed at its best, it’s qual. But brands never come up. And brand pillars or brand architecture definitely never come up. I call it “Nobody is thinking about Smucker’s”.

What they are thinking about is their life. Tasks they must accomplish, things they must get done, people they care about, the job they want to excel at, or at least keep. They don’t think about brands, or don’t admit to, beyond that context. They think about jelly when they need to get lunch ready for school from the time they open the door of the refrigerator to the time they put the jar back, and not again until they recognize they may need to buy a new jar. Then they think of Smucker’s, or whatever brand they choose. Once it hits the shopping cart, they don’t think about jelly. And they are happy to think about it less than more.

Inside marketing organizations, we spend an inordinate amount of time pondering the minutia of the brand. The brand experience. Brand resonance. Other made up words following the word brand. It is our job and it is important work for the health of the companies we support. But nobody is thinking about brands the same way we do and we should stop assuming or even allowing ourselves to believe they do.

The research exists, proving that people retain an inventory of available solutions based on awareness and salience.

You may read this a nihilistic. It is, in fact, intended to be the opposite. When marketers begin with the assumption that their brand is important to people, they rush past the critical work that must happen to maximize the slivers of attention people offer. The work marketers do is more important because people don’t think about their brand – or worst, want to avoid thinking about it.

If Smucker’s only has one minute to get added to a shopping list, they had better be the brand first associated with the ‘jelly’ category by the person preparing that list. They had also better make sure that this shopper knows Smucker’s is designed for them.

One of the earliest lessons of digital marketing was the importance of coordination of appearance and message of digital ads (the tiny squares in the corners of websites, we used to call these banners. I read that someone clicked one once.) and the landing page to which the ad sent a person who engaged. The idea, as you know, is to reduce dissonance. A person sees an ad, they click the ad, they get a reinforcement that they were taken to the correct place to fulfill the promise of the ad.

Brand expectations are the same and have to be carefully executed as such. The design of the product, the service, the experience has to be created for the exact person whom the brand wants to buy. The best customer. Everything about the brand from its name, through the feeling a person has after buying or using it has to feel connected. Related. Intentional.

From the brand name and design, to the materials or ingredients chosen, through fulfillment and delivery – every part should feel consistent. When moved to action, a repeat buyer or user may only experience half the touch points of a brand, but they should get the same feeling as someone using the brand for the very first time. Complaints usually arise from something that is inconsistent with the understanding a person has of the brand.

If everything is blue, except one red square, we are sure to notice the difference. For example, a brand built around the promise of customer service will fail when service is anything short of excellent. Why? It is not just because people are persnickety and demand service (though both are true). They aren’t thinking about your brand, they are thinking about their lives. Until they are using your brand. And at that point they are using the brand to accomplish the task at hand. The context becomes a part of the brand, and the brand part of the context. So they are thinking about the delivery they expect from your brand and become keenly aware of the service level.

Building a brand requires commitment. A commitment to the customer? How trite. Building a brand mandates a long-term commitment to consistent delivery of the promise made to the best customer no matter how they choose to engage, whenever they are inspired to do so. They are living their lives. Periodically, they may remember your brand. When they do, the brand needs to be ready to deliver on its promise.