Promise: What a brand promise is and why it matters

Back when the Internet was just out of diapers (that is, about 20 years ago), it was popular to say “a brand is a promise.”There wasn’t a brand consultant in the world who didn’t have that on a slide in their pitch deck.

The business mind, obsessed as it is with operational efficiency, loves nothing more than to keep things as brief as possible. Marketing folks fell in love with the idea of reducing the definition of “brand” to a single word. It’s similar to how corporate leaders love to reduce every aspect of a company’s performance to a single number: the stock price.

But both these tendencies are flawed—and this is not the place for a discussion of the latter (if you are interested in that, you can go here).

In general, the flaw itself is an illustration of Einstein’s classic definition of simplicity: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler.” As it turns out, this is a key goal of brand strategy: make it simple, but not too simple.

Don’t promise what you can’t deliver

Here’s why the saying “a brand is a promise” is wrong: it’s not just about making a promise. It’s about keeping it. Brand promise lives in the world of marketing communications. Keeping the promise lives in the world of customer experience. And experience always speaks louder than words.

It follows that if the promise is what gets customers into the tent, a positive experience is what keeps them there and coming back for more. Promise drives acquisition. Customer experience drives retention.

Promises are made to be kept, hence the saying, “Don’t make a promise you can’t keep.” Said another way: don’t promise what you can’t deliver. This is exactly where most brands fall down. In their zeal for customer acquisition, they over-promise. Then they get the customer in the door and under-deliver. Or deliver something that wasn’t promised. At that point, the brand promise becomes a bitter reminder of what you, the customer, could have had if the brand had kept its promise.

Ultimately, what the brand promise comes down to is trust, integrity and doing what you say you’ll do. Seems like such common sense, doesn’t it?

But few do it well.

A brand promise is an exercise in prudence

If the rule is “don’t promise what you can’t deliver,” then crafting a brand promise should be an exercise in prudence.If your brand is tied to fulfilling unmet needs, as it should be, then your promise must reflect those needs and make it clear to the customer which ones you will fulfill.

To motivate customers, a brand promise has to achieve the following three goals. It must:

  1. Convey a compelling benefit.
  2. Be authentic and credible.
  3. Be delivered, every time.

The brand promise, done well

A promise can define a company in the marketplace. For example, these companies create the following expectations and consistently deliver on them:

  • FedEx: I will make every FedEx experience outstanding.
  • Nike: Bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.
  • BMW: The ultimate driving machine
  • Apple: Think different.

Your promise has significant operational impact. Take FedEx, a global leader in logistics. The company has 425,000 employees in 220 countries worldwide and a fleet of 630 aircraft and 94,500 ground vehicles. It delivers 1.2 billion packages a year. That’s 1.2 billion chances to either delight or disappoint customers. Given the volume and complexity of its business, the odds of the company not keeping its promise are very high. So FedEx designed its entire operation, all of its activities, around delivering on this promise. It is constantly tweaking its customer experience design in order to keep it on track.

Apple presents an interesting example of a promise that is a direct extension of a company’s position in the marketplace. All of its devices are extremely design-conscious, which is why a Mac is often the laptop of choice by the props department for movies or TV shows. It just looks different—and better—than anything else on the market. Its design is also why Apple is the weapon of choice for most people in the creative industry (with the possible exception of gaming designers).

Track how well you deliver on your promise

Ultimately, the most important thing is to make sure your promise can be delivered. It is as much a tool for you as it is for your customer. It should keep you focused on how your performance and delivery measure up. Establish a mechanism for customer feedback so you can track how well your brand is living up to what it promises.

Exercise: Crafting a brand promise

As mentioned above, a brand promise must:

  1. Convey a compelling benefit.
  2. Be authentic and credible.
  3. Be delivered, every time.

Uncover the compelling benefits. Ask yourself: What is the most compelling benefit my brand delivers? This benefit can be functional or emotional, as long as it is different from what others are promising in your category. Remember that you are trying to stand out from the crowd, not fit into it.

Then ask everyone who works in your company the same question. You may get varying answers, but the goal is to find your way to consensus. Look for patterns of similarity in the responses you get. People often have different ways of saying the same thing.

Develop the brand promise.After completing this process of collecting comments and looking for patterns, try to isolate and prioritize the most compelling ideas. You will want to convene a group discussion on your findings so your team has a shared sense of ownership and is actively involved in the process.

Use the group session to validate the benefits and narrow them down to one. In the end, a single sentence is all you need.

Questions to ask the group:

  1. Is this benefit a true reflection of what differentiates us? (If it’s not, eliminate it and select another that is.)
  2. Is this promise believable? What proof is there that we can deliver on it?
  3. Can we deliver on this promise every time?

Read more in this series

Read more about the 6Ps of branding, including: