[originally published in Internet Retailer]

Tasks are the baseline of service every brand is expected to deliver. Gestures are things you do that provide value beyond the expected.

Think of any good relationship and you’ll find that the partners have some things they do that are expected. They work, clean up, and agree to share the TV. But they also have extra things they do that they don’t have to. They don’t have to get up and make coffee first, but they do. They don’t have to make a surprise romantic gesture, but they do.

Any relationship, including those brands have with customers, relies partly on this dynamic. Each side has tasks, or things they must do (ship a product that works, pay on time, or provide a reasonable level of customer service). But brands can also make gestures, or special things they do to make their customer’s experience better. Those gestures are often critical elements that define the brand: LL Bean’s willingness to let you return anything, Amazon’s Two-Day Shipping, or Walmart’s mania about low prices.

When marketers discuss CRM or relationship building, they can get complicated and technical. But whenever you get confused, you can usually reduce the discussion to tasks and gestures. Tasks are the baseline of service every brand is expected to deliver. Gestures consist of things you do that provide value beyond the purchase or interaction. So far, this seems pretty “Branding 101.” But life is never so simple. Let’s look at a few rules.

Gestures are nice, but tasks are critical

While you might think gestures are the building blocks of customer loyalty and tasks are humdrum, that doesn’t exactly capture the point. The initial impact of a gesture is low and must build over time. Failure to execute a task, on the other hand, can have immediate and drastic negative consequences. A spouse can make all the coffee in the world, but if that coffee comes with a side dish of flagrant adultery, frankly, it won’t matter much. You must either come up with new gestures or find ways to update existing ones as the world changes around you.

If you don’t believe me, believe Harvard. A recent study showed that when users of a product or service encounter a pain point, they react much more forcefully than when a brand does something well. Most pain points are nothing more than unfulfilled tasks. For example, most women’s athletic clothiers have very liberal returns policies. Lululemon, an otherwise gesture-rich brand, has long had a terrible policy, which was a source of frequent complaints. Recently, however, in the wake of a terrible earnings report, the company changed its tune. Now, its return policy is only kind of lousy. Lesson not quite learned.

Gestures remove pain points or address passions

Gestures are built primarily through the identification of pain points in how customers interact with a brand or the world. An obvious example might be banks that now allow customers to deposit physical checks with an app, rather than leaving home. Ditto the numerous, hard-to-buy brands (razors, especially) that have simplified their customers’ lives with subscription services. Another version of this comes with brands that offer education to help you get more out of a product or support the shared interests of their audiences.

Gestures can become tasks over time

The problem with making coffee first every morning is that coffee eventually becomes your job. The truth is that if every brand in a category is making the same gesture, it stops being a nice-to-have and becomes a requirement.

The auto industry is a fertile ground for seeing how this can happen. Every year companies (and prominently Ford) come up with innovations that might be called “gestures.” One model year, a company comes out with a push-button hatchback. The next year, everyone else follows. The following year, if you don’t have one, you’ve got a problem.

While some gestures, like Red Bull’s integration with extreme sports, are hard to replicate, most of them become tasks over time. It’s always important to recognize when a competitor’s gesture becomes a required task for you, and to find gestures that are truly unique and difficult to copy.

Most gestures must be renewed

Which brings us to our final point: gestures require innovation. You must either come up with new gestures or find ways to update existing ones as the world changes around you. A company like Domino’s has focused a lot on making sure they deliver pizzas fast and conveniently. But that requires a continual scanning of the known universe to find new ways, like Amazon’s Alexa, to speed delivery.


While tasks and gestures do not provide then entirety of a brand’s relationship with its consumers, they do provide a framework for understanding innovation around the customer experience. As brands continually try to innovate, they should remember two things: gestures are nice relationship builders, but tasks are utterly essential to keep the flame burning.

The worst of all worlds in a relationship is when a partner mistakes tasks for gestures and expects a reward when none is due. You may see that bag of trash you’re taking out as a gesture, but you’d better make sure your partner isn’t equally convinced it’s a task. Brands beware.