A promise is not always a promise

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I don’t have to educate the readers of this blog about the concept of a brand promise. Even before branding became a catch phrase in the business and academic worlds, a brand promise was a well-understood idea. See a Coke billboard on your way home from work, and, before you can even get thirsty, a promise had been made. And, it likely goes beyond “bubbly, colored sugarwater … yum.” (Although this is the core promise since brands, even Coke, can and should never be divorced from the products they represent). Happiness, joy, fun — if you drink our drink — have been promised. Will you actually become happier? Unlikely, but you may feel as if you have. The Coca-Cola Company annually spends more than many national GDPs to make this promise to you. And, what’s amazing is that Coke has been successfully making this promise for nearly 120 years.

The same goes for b-to-b brands. Interact with a brand, be it while listening to a sales pitch, participating in a LinkedIn forum or watching an ad during the Masters golf tournament, and a promise has been made; build a relationship with us and you will receive quality, value, competitive advantage, a promotion, etc.

There are two types of errors, however, that companies can make with their brand promise. The first and most apparent is when a promise is made that cannot be fulfilled. We all know this one, because it’s as much a lesson of life as it is in business. If I promise something and don’t deliver, my reputation gets tarnished. Similarly, if a brand promises an experience or level of performance and a company fails to execute, the brand is diluted and the company’s reputation is damaged. Do it serially, and the brand and the company are destroyed. Brand promises that overreach are doomed to fail in the marketplace when your target buyer takes the very action the brand promise was made to encourage. Storied ad agency executive Jerry Della Femina famously said, “Nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising.”

The other error -- more sinister since it’s a much harder ailment for most b-to-b companies to diagnose -- is the opposite of the first. This error occurs when a company is making great products and thrilling its customers, but is failing to make a perceptible brand promise to the market. Its promise is under-reaching or is a noise only a dog can hear. A payoff without a promise. Odd, isn’t it? Quality companies can operate for years, executing well but always wondering why their growth is flatter than it should be or why their competition — perhaps less capable — is earning more share, faster. Imagine if Coke, full of flavor, consistency and evocative of all those positive feelings, never promised any of it, but Pepsi did.
If you can produce a great product, deliver a winning service, and add real, demonstrable value to your customers, then tell your story. Tell it early and often. Challenge your prospects, though, with a clear and confident brand promise to buy from you. Then, simply do what you always do. Pay it off.

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