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My mother always said to keep your promises – that goes for brands, too

By Gary Moss, Brand Alignment Partner



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April 3, 2024 | 5 min read

History is littered with examples of brands that have let customers down and paid the price, says Gary Moss of Definition. Integrity, however, comes from brand alignment.

Two white models of hands link little fingers in a gesture that symbolizes a promise being made

Brands have more to lose than gain by not keeping their promises, says Gary Moss. / Andrew Petrov via Unsplash

My mum was consistent in her advice: assume it will rain, never drop litter, and always, always keep your promises.

That last one is the hardest to follow. And we've all been there when someone promises you the earth, only ultimately to let you down. It’s a kick in the stomach and makes you question your judgment.

My mum knew the score: promises are what give relationships meaning. Once a promise is broken, the trust is gone – and things can never be quite the same again.

Trust is formed over time and takes hard work, understanding, and empathy. Yet something nurtured over years, decades even, can evaporate in moments.

Remember that ‘best friend’ who promised not to tell a secret, only to blab it on social media a few hours later? Or a politician who says that, if elected, they will not raise national insurance – only to do so mere months after getting into office.

Ever going to trust them again? Of course not.

Actions speak louder than words

Companies and organizations can suffer disastrous reputational and commercial damage when they break their promises. So why do they keep doing it? History is littered with examples of those who failed to match their actions to what they said they stood for.

Public bodies, political parties, and companies of all sizes make thousands of promises every day. Not just the: ‘we'll deliver your new draft excluder by 10pm’ type of promise, either. People repeatably buy from brands they trust. So brand promises build trust and understanding and give you competitive edge – as long as you keep living up to them.

So much can go wrong if companies don't make sure their actions reflect their words. In today's technological landscape, there's no hiding place for the promise breakers. It may take time, but they'll be found out. And then they'll be toast.

Many companies start out with the intention of keeping their promise. They make ‘commitments’ to customers, publish their values, and trumpet their vision – but then do nothing to bring them to everyday life. The values, often developed at great expense, remain in the CEO’s desk drawer, emblazoned on a mouse mat somewhere, or written on the walls at HQ.

But without action, they're wasted words.

Vision without action is hallucination’

The Post Office. Fujitsu. Brewdog. Boeing. We all know examples of brands who didn't behave like they said they would. And it had a significant impact on share value and reputations, not to mention the damaging implications for the management.

Marks and Spencer is only now recovering from its 1990s misalignment of expectations on quality and design. Enron's published values included ‘integrity’ and that they'd: ‘work with customers and prospects openly and honestly’. Ask any student for their views on the Lib Dems and their promises about university fees. Or frustrated commuter on their opinion of railway companies who have: ‘putting the customer first’ in their brand definition, but who break that promise every day.

What about the ones that do deliver?

Take Ryanair. They promise the lowest fares, tell you how they'll treat you, and do exactly that. Magnificent. You may not like them but that’s not the point. They set out a promise and keep it, so it’s no wonder they're the biggest carrier in Europe.

Alignment is the key

How to nail this alchemy? Devise a strategy that helps organizations to keep their promises. The colleague and customer experience must ring true to the promise.

So processes, operations, communications, and people policies should be as much part of developing your brand as design and tone of voice. You're much less likely to keep your promises if you only set up one part of the organization to deliver them. It should be everyone’s responsibility, from the CEO down.

Which means my mum was right all along. And thanks to her, I never drop litter and I keep my promises. Somehow, though, I never assume it’s going to rain, even though I work in Manchester. Two out of three ain’t bad.

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