Liar, Liar, Brand On Fire

Why Promises Kept (or Broken) Will Determine Your Growth (or Demise)

Twelve years ago, our company was hired by a plastic surgeon who had developed a product to help his patient’s skin heal. The product’s origin story was the classic one. Since the surgeon couldn’t find any skin care products that performed the way he needed them to, he invented his own.

His patients raved about what he had come up with.

Our job was to help him brand and market his Lexli line of skin care products.

Not surprisingly, our initial industry research revealed a plethora of false promises about wrinkles, aging and “more youthful-looking skin.” As a result, a talented writer on our team created an ad with the headline Stop Lying to My Face.

The campaign didn’t work.

In hindsight, our media budget was too small and our idealism too big to create the impact that we had imagined. Each year, billions of dollars are spent promoting health and beauty products. We just couldn’t break through in our attempt to wage war against the ginormous marketing budgets and questionable claims of the huge companies in the industry.

That was then. I think if we had launched the campaign today, we would have a better shot because times have changed. Today, social media has tipped the scales in favor of truth and transparency. This means it is becoming more and more difficult to outspend broken promises, since breaking promises is quickly revealed by the crowd.

Your Brand is Making—and Breaking—Promises Every Day

Think about this for a moment. What promises should your brand be making and keeping? What promises are you making and breaking? The answer to these two questions will determine whether your brand flourishes or is torched by both your customers and the upstart brands who have learned how to listen and react to the changing needs of your consumers.

If you don’t think you are breaking any promises, consider these examples and see how many ring true for your organization:

  • Your promise of unparalleled customer service is repeated by a voice recording again and again and again and AGAIN…while your customer waits on hold for an actual person to pick up the line.
  • You promise simplicity while making your customers click, navigate and scream at a computer interface that is maddeningly unintuitive and frequently doesn’t believe they have the correct password even when they do.
  • Your promise of customer intimacy becomes painfully ironic when you ask for social security numbers, birth dates, mother’s maiden name and the breed of your first pet, EVERY SINGLE TIME you transfer a customer from one department to another.
  • Your promise of knowing your customers doesn’t align with your database strategy. For example, despite being a customer for 30+ years, direct marketing still starts with “Dear G” (as in G. Michael Maddock for those out there who go by their middle names).
  • You say you have your customers’ back, but then you sell products that don’t do what they say they are going to do. For example, insurance companies that sell cyber policies that don’t cover phishing. Or life insurance that doesn’t cover—uh—a pandemic.
  • Your promise of caring about the environment is all over the airwaves while you spend hundreds of millions to fight lawsuits with environmentalists and continue to lobby against green anything. Or the making of a single cup of coffee in one of your hotel rooms involves 27 pieces of plastic.

You get the idea. And here’s the thing. Everyone now knows what you are up to. Because of social media platforms, your broken promises are a click away from going viral.

Your advertising budget can no longer save you from the real truth going viral.

Keeping the Right Promises

I learned back when I was working with executives at Procter & Gamble that the definition of innovation and a brand promise are the same.

Innovation is the synchronized intersection—this means we need to make it happen—of a meaningful customer need, an idea (new product, service or business model) that solves that need, and an experience that delights your customer or consumer.

So, by definition, understanding who your customers are, what needs they most want met, and then (and only then) creating products, services, business models and the experiences and campaigns to support them is the recipe for a brand that makes and keeps the right promises.

Great brands have mastered the who, what and how to make and keep the right promises.

Stop Lying to Yourself

While most of us like to spend time focusing on what our customers love about our products and services, the real gold is found when we focus instead on what they hate.

The most successful entrepreneurs understand that customer hate is where true disruption happens. Said differently, they embrace the hate to innovate. They simply find something that everyone hates about an industry, fix it, and count their money.

  • People hated being charged for late video rentals. Say hello to Netflix.
  • People hated (almost everything) about cabs. Say hello to Uber.
  • People hated not being able to get cash outside the hours of 9 to 5. Enter the ATM.
  • People loved the song but hated buying the whole album. The industry got “Naptsered.”
  • People hated going to the gym. Peloton brings the trainers to you.

Here’s the thing. Most leaders are too stubborn, afraid or distracted to do research about the elephants in your industries’ room. They would rather lie to themselves, and consequently break promises, than try to understand their customers’ most “outrageous” grievances.

This is how promises are broken and famous companies fall.

Those responsible for making and keeping the right brand promises must have a set of tools to make change a priority in the minds of senior leaders and boards (and even their own minds to sleep better at night). Here are a few ideas of where you can start:

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