Field Notes

Why Your Brand Promise Matters

We used to think of brands as big businesses devoid of emotion. They were empty, faceless entities that transacted in goods and services, but didn’t have much going on beneath the surface.

But competition changes everything. Today’s consumers, unlike any generation before them, are faced with an overwhelming number of choices in every category, from hundreds of shoe brands to a seemingly interchangeable list of cell phone service providers.

So, in order to set themselves apart – and resonate in the minds of consumers – brands have had to find a way to stand out.

And, more often than not, the best way to stand out is to stand for something.

That “something” isn’t a tagline or gimmicky marketing talk: it’s a promise. What separates successful brands from the rest of the pack is the contract they make with their customers —an assurance that they’ll deliver something consistent through every interaction and every facet of their business.

Good brands, like good friends, stick to their word. They do what they say – and then some.

Decades ago, Volvo made a single-word promise, and has designed their business to deliver on it ever since.

That word? Safety.

For Volvo, “safety” was a carefully chosen strategy, both for what it promises – and what it doesn’t. Safety means that Volvos aren’t the fastest, the sleekest, or the cheapest. But safety is what defines Volvo. They pioneered the three-point seat belt and have a vision of eliminating accident-related injuries by 2020. Safety, then, isn’t just a word that Volvo tosses around; it’s a point of strategic differentiation.

Every brand should stand for something

Brand promises aren’t just for big, established brands. They’re for startups and smaller brands, too.

Everlane is a fashion brand that’s gained popularity (and revenue) over the past few years. They design beautiful, simple stuff. And somehow, they seem to intuitively understand what consumers (especially millennials) want, despite not being the most inexpensive or trendy retailer around.

But it’s not a coincidence. It’s a part of their DNA—and their promise. The contract they make with their customers represents a really big idea in the age of fast, throwaway fashion—and it’s just two words: Radical Transparency.

Everlane made a promise to work with factories that treat their employees well, to expose the real cost of manufacturing their goods, and to help consumers understand why that all matters.

This promise doesn’t just give Everlane a strategic advantage over its competitors; it puts them in a class of their own. By promising radical transparency, the brand gave consumers a choice they didn’t realize they had: to shop at Everlane and know where their shirts and sandals come from, or to shop at another retailer and stay in the dark.

When you’re competing in a market of $5 tee shirts that stand up to a single wash (thanks, Target), it can be tempting to compete on price. But you’ll never win a race to the bottom. That’s why it’s so important to define what you stand for—and what you promise to your customers—from the get-go.

Brand Promise = Business Performance

Making and keeping promises may sound nice, but it’s not just a way to earn friends—it’s a way to win business.

Despite this, most brands still underestimate the importance of clearly defining their value and clearly expressing that value in the minds of their customers.

In fact, a Gallup study of 18 million consumers finds that only about half of brands actually deliver on their promises. The same study also found that the highest performing brands deliver on their promises 75% of the time.

Promises, then, don’t just give customers warm fuzzies; they’re a stake in the ground that brands can use to define themselves and help their business succeed.

Crafting Your Promise

So, where should you start? Building your own brand promise may sound daunting, but it doesn’t have to be.

Start with a simple question: if your brand went away tomorrow, what would be missing from the world? Finding a compelling answer to that question will help you unearth your own value—and clarify the mark you want to make in the hearts and minds of your customers.