The Intention Gap

This morning, I read a great post from Asbury & Asbury on “brand conversations”, which is here.

Here’s a key excerpt:

“Brands have been talking about having conversations for years, mainly since social media came along and made such a two-way exchange theoretically possible. No longer would marketing be about shouting to the masses through 48-sheets and big TV spots. Now it would be about hosting a conversation, with everyone passionately acting as your brand advocate through the simple process of joining and sharing the conversation.

Of course, nowhere on the planet has this happened. For a taste of true brand conversations, look at the Twitter feed of any major service brand – a never-ending stream of apologetic answers to customer complaints, punctuated by the odd, hopeful brand message from central marketing.”

Whilst I have to disagree with a statement such as “nowhere on the planet has this happened“, we can probably use invoke one of the tools from Dan Dennett’s book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools For Thinking, Sturgeon’s Law: 90% of everything is crap.

As such, the main thrust of the A&A post still stands; the majority of social media activity is terrible. Phil points out as much here, too.

I wondered if, rather than looking at this on a micro level, we should look at it on the macro level.

What the sheer volume of social media activity from all brands is perhaps doing is turn the ‘two-way exchange’ into an expectation for people. We are now so used to being encouraged and asked into conversations that we’re reaching the conclusion that the way to talk to any brand is through a public social network.

Which is full of difficulties, which I’ll get into later, but overall, social media has been a Pandora’s Box for the idea of two-way communication.

Once people have it in their head that you can talk back to some brands, the expectation is that it should be true for all brands. There’s no going back now. The people view the products and services around them, and what to do when they fail expectations, has changed permanently.


A short diversion, to look at this from anther angle.

This is a quick test of an idea, in preparation for my rewrite* of the “Are Brands Fracking The Social Web?” presentation I’m giving on Wednesday for the first time at Squared. This particular element is still forming, so YMMV.

As I mentioned, I’ve been reading Dan Dennett’s aforementioned Intuition Pumps and Other Tools For Thinking.

One of the tools he describes is something called The Intentional Stance, which is one of three stances a person can take when predicting the performance of the thing in front of them.

In ascending order…

1. The Physical Stance is the one you take when predicting the behaviour of things that are “neither alive nor artefacts” – we use only our understanding of the natural physical world and how things behave accordingly in contemplating them. How gravity works upon a stone, or how wind works upon the surface of water.

2. The Design Stance is when you take an object and predict what it does by the cues that it contains. Dennett’s example is an alarm clock. If you see something that fits into the category ‘alarm clock’ in your head, you can reason that there’s a few buttons you can push on the back to make it ring at a certain time (this made me think of the ‘archetypes’ than Dejan Sudjic talked about in The Language of Things). The object itself (if well designed) helps us predict how to use it.

3. The Intentional Stance, which Dennett references as a subspecies of The Design Stance, means that you treat the thing as an agent of sorts, “with beliefs and desires and enough rationality to do what it ought to do given those beliefs and desires” – “The intentional stance is the strategy of interpreting the behaviour of an entity (person, animal, artifact or whatever) by treating it as if it were a rational agent who governed its “choice” of “action” by a “consideration” of its “beliefs” and “desires”.”

These stances are a good user-centric way of imagining who people see your brand.

My own working shorthand for the three is…

The Physical Stance – Basic Things Should Act As Expected.

The Design Stance – Designed Things Should Act As Created.

The Intentional Stance – Representative Things Should Act As Instructed.

I’m still playing with language, but the space between the last two is the interesting bit for me here when unpicking some of the implications that social has for brands.


If you take the general brand proposition at face value, it’s always seen itself as delivering value at the level of The Intentional Stance. These were not just mere products cranked out of a factory, these were the representatives of the “beliefs and desires” of the company who made them, with “enough rationality to do what it ought to do given those beliefs and desires“.

That’s why brands were seen as valuable things; they differentiated you from every other product which people would interpret at The Design Stance level, where everything did the same thing for people (a chocolate bar would work like a chocolate bar, but a Cadbury’s bar was a bit more special; an alarm clock would work like an alarm clock, though a Braun one would work and look better than others).

However, whereas once having people evaluate your thing using The Intentional Stance meant just broadcasting adverts at them, it now means something different.

If this thing in front of me is an agent of your beliefs and desires, then it’s now an offer to engage with you on those terms. It’s not a one-way transmission of what you consider your brand to be. You’ve sold me a living, breathing emissary of your beliefs, with a walkie-talkie built-in so that we can talk about it. You instructed it (and indeed, may still instruct it**) to act like this. So we should talk.

The great social media promise was, of course, that I’d love your product, and would want to share, publicly, in my support of those beliefs and desires. Yet much more often, the product realty fails to live up to the brand promise.

If you really believe that personal banking is so important, then why does your system fail so spectacularly in delivering personal banking? Why are your burgers not even the third best on the high street? Why doesn’t your beer taste of anything? Why did you change the chocolate in the eggs we all liked? 

Social media has increasingly become the space to resolve contradictions between the claimed beliefs of a brand, and the functional reality of using its products and services. It is the space between how you’re judged from The Design Stance and The Intentional Stance.

As a working title, I’ve called it The Intention Gap – the distance between the promise and the reality

Intention Gap

And whereas once upon a time, it wasn’t really that much of a problem (as Russell pointed out last year when talking about parity products), it now matters a lot more, because the gap is a black hole, with a gravitation pull for social commentary.

The bigger the gap, the greater the gravity, and the more it will pull in comments saying “wait, no, this is a rubbish thing, don’t waste your time”. The more your product or service fails in meeting inflated expectations, the more you can expect “a never-ending stream of apologetic answers to customer complaints, punctuated by the odd, hopeful brand message from central marketing”.

I’ll keep nudging and prodding this idea, obviously, but it already raises interesting questions to ask. What happens to brands who can’t afford to bring the product quality up to the general expectation at the same price point? Are they happy to trade current margin for future existence? How easy is it for new market entrants, who’re setting the running on product quality, to scale up to rival existing brands? And what sort of questions must you ask to establish what sort of Intention Gap you might be looking at?

There’s one thing worth trying to establish a firmer viewpoint on for Wednesday though; with mainstream social networks erring towards becoming platforms for brand broadcast, will the social activity which seems so tricky for many brands disappear? Or is it just going to shift elsewhere less visible and manageable spaces for brands to see?



* I’ve given the talk eight times across the last two years, each with gradual updates and evidence plucked from the maelstrom as it passes by. This is the first time I’ve fundamentally rewritten it, because of two things.

Firstly, one of the participants said at the end of the course in November something interesting – “When you gave the talk in the first week, I thought it was the worst we’d had. By the end of the course, I thought it was the best.” User feedback like that is really useful – it made me think about what I was trying to achieve across the six weeks, rather than just in the ninety minutes.

Secondly, it feels like we’re getting close to an answer: Are Brands Fracking The Social Web? Yes, quite possibly

**This idea of products as agents gets really interesting when we start seeing more and more things that arrive in our homes that are constantly instructed on how to behave, be it intentionally or unintentionally. Samsung’s TVs that are listening to you, for instance…



3 responses to “The Intention Gap”

  1. John Dodds avatar

    Does improving product quality have to be more expensive?

    1. john v willshire avatar
      john v willshire

      Hard to say for everything as a blanket rule, but from experience a lot of products have been engineered down to minimum cost for maximum value, and businesses are built upon maintaining the gap.