Why Making A Brand Promise Is Not Enough

Guest blog by Kevin Walker of BoardWalk

A couple years ago, in a roomful of branding specialists, a friend and colleague of mine addressed those assembled. He asked us to imagine Tiffany’s iconic blue box. He said, when you give that blue box to your loved one, you’re giving all the values and standards that go along with it, you’re giving all the brand equity that Tiffany has built up over the years. “That blue box … that’s the promise … that’s the brand.” I thought my friend made a good point, as far as it went. But I couldn’t help thinking that there had better actually be a Tiffany ring in that box. Any thing less – Cubic Zirconia, for instance – and you would have been better off if you had never made the promise in the first place. Most smart people will tell you that the need to actually keep the brand promise should need no mention. It should just go without saying. I respectfully disagree. Keeping the promise takes genuine dedication and hard work. That’s where the heavy lifting of brand building really takes place – and I think I can show that by making two important points.

Before we start, let’s agree that any fool can make a promise. Lance Armstrong and Bernie Madoff promised us a lot. But they didn’t work out so well, did they? It turned out they never really delivered what they promised. Some brands, though well-meaning, can’t quite deliver with 100% consistency. United Airlines promises us “friendly skies”, a standard they struggle to meet. But, every time they fall short of that benchmark, their market holds back a little of what United wants more than anything else. More than money, even. They withhold brand loyalty. People still fly with them when United has the lowest, most convenient fare. But all else being equal, if people had a choice, they’d abandon today’s United in droves.

No one is loyal to Armstrong and Madoff anymore. As such, they are dead brands. United is still hanging on. It will be interesting to see how, or if, they restore their brand to its former glory. The truth is, without market buy-in, there is no brand. And the market doesn’t buy in unless you deliver on your promises.


Which brings us to the first point. The illustration above shows how branding actually works. You have to figure out what your unique, differentiating brand promise is and then, through your marketing efforts, make that promise to your market. If – and only if – you deliver on that promise, consistently, and over time, you market will begin to reward you with brand loyalty. The brand grows in the covenant. You don’t really own it. It is a relationship you share with your market. The longer you can keep this symbiotic relationship going, the stronger and more valuable your brand will become. Break the cycle and your brand takes a hit. Break it badly enough, the way United did by dragging Dr. Dao off their plane, and your brand can be dropped to the mat, maybe even knocked out for good.


Now, the second point. The above table has to do with how management should organize the creation, communication and delivery of the brand promise. If we take as our definition, A Brand is a Promise Kept (see our ebook), we can see that brand building involves every part of a business enterprise. Determining what the brand actually is requires strategic thinking. Making the brand promise to the market requires marketing, communication, storytelling. But coming through on the promise requires operations. That’s how you engage the whole company in brand building. The CEO and CMO can easily sit down together and come up with a brand promise. They can run campaigns to communicate that promise. But it’s everybody else in the company who has to deliver on that promise. So they had better understand what it is.

If you leave your employees out of the branding process, if you don’t engage them, your brand will never reach its full potential and value. It will flounder like United Airlines or even die off like the Madoff brand. The major brands of the world (all market leaders) have staffs who are engaged and eager to do their part to build the brand. That’s because they understand their role in delivering on the brand promise. Delivery is every bit as important as creation and communication.

So, to all you gift-giving lovers out there … if you promise Tiffany, deliver Tiffany. Never try to pass off costume jewelry hidden inside a Tiffany box. The truth will out and, once your subterfuge is discovered, you can expect your personal brand to suffer a very real black eye.

Kevin Walker is based in the U.S. He is a brand strategist, cofounder and director of Boardwalk.

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