7 ways brands break their promises

7 ways brands break their promises

Some time back, I looked at what it took to get a brand promise right. In this post, I want to examine the converse: when (consumers feel that) brands have not lived up to what they said they would deliver. What happens to generate customer disappointment?

While brand strategists hold up the brand promise as a critical element in a brand’s credibility, consumers, it seems, are less sure that brands will consistently do what they have undertaken to do. In fact, Gallup findings show that only half of customers believe that companies will always deliver what they promise and just 27% of employees strongly agree that they always deliver what they promised. There is, to say the least, something of a credibility gap.

Making a habit of disappointment

That’s not helped by the fact that companies that do break their promises seem to make a habit of doing so. Research by Accenture shows that 82% of consumers who encountered a broken promise say the company or brand concerned broke multiple promises to them. “Telecommunications companies are the most commonly mentioned, followed by consumer goods retailers, and retail banking or insurance providers. However, when it comes to breaking multiple promises, healthcare and automotive companies were the dubious leaders. Clearly, customers’ ability to recall specific instances of service failures is acute, and it affects their overall view of the company.”

But is breaking a promise as simple as not doing what you said you would do? Yes and no.

Promises by their very nature have explicit and implicit elements. There are the words that are actually used, and that form the literal undertaking. And there are underlying meanings that consumers take from what has been said, that may or may not have been what the brand meant, but that fit with the ‘internal logic’ of buyers. For example, a brand that promises to clean up its supply chain may literally intend to audit and reconfigure how it gets its goods to market. However, that ‘promise’ may be read by consumers as a shift to a more ethical approach, the instigation of audited traceability, an intention to shift the supply chain either on-shore or off-shore or something else … If the brand delivers what it considers to be its side of the bargain but that is not what buyers believed they were entitled to, then the word “broken” will quickly enter the fray.

The other aspect of course is that every brand promise is only as strong as the people who are asked to deliver on it. If you fail to give your people the tools, permissions, resources or training to do what they must, there will be a shortfall. Too many brands forget this. They simply go to market with an idea that they then expect their frontline and support teams to work out for themselves.

How brands can fall short

  1. The promise was never kept – the brand just didn’t do what it said it would, because it didn’t wish to, it didn’t know how to or couldn’t. Unless this is a matter of outright deception, the key problem here is often one of over-optimism: the brand managers have talked themselves into believing that the brand can do more than it is capable of.
  2. The promise wasn’t delivered in the way that buyers expected – the brand’s view of what was expected differed markedly from what consumers understood it to mean. This is the classic case of customers expecting “X” and the brand delivering “J”.
  3. The promise came with too many conditions – the promise is kept, but consumers face what they consider to be unacceptable or unexpected hurdles to qualify. Another scenario here is that the brand changes its terms and conditions, such that consumers feel they now have to do so much more to achieve what they once got so much more easily.
  4. There was a significant delay in fulfilling the promise – things just took too long. This is particularly the case for brands that take longer than consumers expected to put things right.
  5. The promise was only ever a hope – the brand mistook a dream for a promise. They went public with a big idea in the hope that their people would rise up and deliver on the new expectation. It never happened.
  6. The promise was what was expected already – nothing will make cynical consumers even more sceptical than a promise that buyers took for granted from the whole sector anyway. Consumers quickly identify this as lowballing.
  7. The promise was superseded by competitors – not so much a case of failure, but rather one where the promise loses its punch. A promise, which may have been attractive at one point, falls flat because others already offer (or appear to offer) more. Consumers quickly come to see the promise as uncompelling.

Regardless of why it happened, what is the fallout of not delivering? The Accenture research reveals that companies that fail to keep their actual or implied promises cause unnecessary erosion to their customer base. 38% of consumers who experience a broken promise will switch soon after, 10% will keep working with the company but move some of their spending, and the rest – more than half – will look to switch, opening the door to an eventual defection. Many consumers, in areas such as retail banking and telecommunications, will use moments like renewal of contract to make these changes.

Three thoughts to close. If you’re shaping or reshaping a brand promise right now:
Be careful what you say;
Be aware of what others may think you mean; and
Be certain that you have what’s required to deliver.

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2 Comments

  1. Thanks for this article. Your point about the brand promise being only as strong as the people who deliver it is especially important. For anyone doubting this, I recommend serving as a volunteer coordinator for a local charity. Then evaluate any new brand promises with the question, “Could a volunteer remember to do this?” If not, perhaps reduce the brand promise into something easier to execute for your employees.

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