In this era of promises made and broken daily, everyone’s a skeptic. Consumers investigate — instinctively, shrewdly — to see if what a company is selling lives up to the claims. It goes beyond Consumer Reports: The internet has made most of us savvy at sniffing out vague assurances or paid reviews. Gone are the days of a clever ad campaign getting everyone to buy in — today’s winning businesses walk their talk, authentically embracing their own message by offering a product or service, a company story and even a rally cry that people can believe in. Nowadays, the customer is not just always right; she’s judge and jury on what makes a successful brand. For companies, understanding what goes into that brand formula is more important than ever.
A brand isn’t a logo or a slogan or even viral fame. It’s how customers think of a company based on their own experience. It’s what instantly comes to mind when they hear the company name. To make that association a good one, great companies stand behind their brand promise — the assurance that customers can count on having that positive experience again and again.
I remember the day I was in a terrible car accident and the airbags blew. My babies were crying, and in a flash, I realized the car literally did not fit my family: the metal frame of the ceiling hit my husband’s head, causing a concussion. As the insurance adjuster explained how we could get the car fixed, my only thought was: I need a safe car, a truly safe car, and Volvo sprang to mind. The automaker’s reputation for making the safest fortress on wheels had been seared into memory, and with research, I found it was more than a claim: it was documented repeatedly in crash tests, touted by proud Volvo-trained mechanics and backed by legions of loyal drivers, who now include me. A well-traveled Volvo SUV sits in my driveway today, and soon I will confidently pass the keys to my teenagers when they use it as their first car.
Meanwhile, false brand promises and practices now also become notorious at lightning speed, which may be one reason ethics and transparency are getting a lot of press. Two companies known for those praiseworthy traits are Everlane and Southwest Airlines. The apparel retailer, Everlane, has made “radical transparency” a core selling point, letting online customers peek into the company’s factories to learn how the shoes and clothes are sustainably made, sourced and priced. And Southwest has coined “Transfarency” to describe its policy of “low fares, no hidden fees.” As GSD&M ad agency’s co-founder, Tim McClure, has told me many times, his client, Herb Kelleher, former Southwest CEO, always swiftly corrected anyone who said he was in the airline business: He was actually in the service business foremost, he said. Online testimonials from Southwest’s many fans bear him out: It’s consumer as marketer, using the “data” of direct experience with the brand.
A reliable brand promise is essential, but it’s not always obvious what that message should be. Walmart could have positioned itself mainly as a well-stocked megastore, but instead, it’s: “Save people money so they can live better.” It seems like a simple point, but keeping that promise takes a lot of work. Behind the scenes, the company has set up its finances and partnerships to make its promise of low prices possible. Keeping prices low means running operations with the promise in mind at all times. Never underestimate what it takes to back up your brand promise day in and day out.
Here are some considerations for developing a brand promise that you can make good on:
• What can customers get from you that no one else can offer? Make a list and circle the items that stand out. Dig deep. Ask yourself why customers seek you out and ask them, in a survey, to tell you in their own words. Those words are gold; heed them and look for a common theme.
• What traits is your company known for that would be hard for others to replicate? Embrace those differentiators and promote them.
• Formulate a pledge you know you can stand behind for years to come. Look for any factors that might make that difficult; address them upfront. Remember, your aim is to exceed customer expectations, not overshoot your own capacity or set goals you can’t meet.
• Build a company culture devoted to fulfilling your brand promise in every respect, from hiring to customer complaints. No company is perfect, but how you handle a difficult situation can be one of your defining moments. Don’t we all read reviews online and notice how companies respond? Yes, we do!
• Write out your brand promise in detail, clarifying how you’ll deliver the unique benefits your customers expect. Make it part of internal operations so you’re confident every department will do its part to honor that commitment every day.
Whether you are launching a new company or refreshing the messaging and consumer promise for an existing company, the investment in understanding what differentiates you and what truly resonates with your customers, employees and partners matters. Be sure to invest the time and validate your efforts by testing the concept before rolling it out. Remember, the best brand promise becomes a rally cry that people want to get behind.