How Promises Affect Brands

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 11, Issue No. 8
November, 2012

By Dan Coughlin



An organization’s brand is the value customers think they receive when buying products and services from that organization or the value they think they will receive if they do buy that organization’s products and services. You don’t own your brand. It exists inside the minds of your customers and potential customers.

Your Brand is Not Your Promise, It’s the Customer’s Opinion

Some people think a brand is a promise. They are confusing the term “brand” with “brand promise.” Your brand is not what you promise to deliver. Your brand is the value your customers and potential customers think you actually deliver in terms of helping them to achieve their desired outcomes.

Having said that, it is critically important that you clearly promise your customers what you are going to help them to achieve. They need to know what they can expect from you. You can make your promise through a statement on your website, through your advertising, through conversations with customers, through guarantees that you put in writing for your customers, and in a variety of other ways. By making a promise, you are taking an active role toward helping to build the brand you want to have. However, no matter how much you promise, your brand is still outside of your control because it is the opinion that other people have of your organization. All you can do is make clear promises to your customers and do everything possible to keep those promises.

Over the past fifteen years I’ve worked with major brands such as Shell, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Toyota, Marriott, Abbott, St. Louis Cardinals, RE/MAX, GE Capital, Anheuser-Busch InBev, Prudential, Boeing, Abbott, and Subway. One thing they all share in common is they work very hard to communicate a clear promise to their customers and then they work even harder to keep those promises.

Think Through Your Promises

The worst promise is to say, “We have something for everybody.” Really? Are you providing the universe? You have to be clear in promising a specific value to a specific group of people. You might attract other customers for other reasons, but that won’t be the brand you want to build. A clear brand is very powerful because it helps to attract the type of customers you want for the type of value you want to be known for delivering.

Use these three questions as your first set of screens:

  • Did you make a clear promise to your desired customers?
  • Did you keep your promise?
  • Does this promise matter to these types of customers?

If it’s not clear what you are promising to improve for the customer, then they may never buy from you because they didn’t know you could help them.

Another reason they might now buy from you is because they feel you didn’t keep your promises in the past. Anytime anyone in your organization fails to deliver on your organization’s promise to customers, your brand as an organization has been damaged. This is why great brands put a premium on execution. And when they do make a mistake, they double-down on making sure that those mistakes don’t happen again in the future. This is also why it is so important to conduct regular brand audits. You want to constantly make sure that everything you’re doing in your organization is helping to deliver on the promises you’ve made to your customers. Only then can you really optimize your chances for building a great brand.

If they do know what you are promising and people choose not to buy from you, it may be because what you’re promising is not relevant enough to them in terms of what they are trying to achieve. You need to select a performance category that matters to your desired customers. Then you have to be able to deliver a remarkable impact in that category. Then you can make promises to your desired customers. And if you steadily perform at a very high level, you can work your way into the number one or number two spot in the minds of your customers. When you land in that position, you will have a great brand. Then the key is to keep working to maintain one of those two slots in the minds of your customers. If you only reach their third best choice, you will never build a great brand.

McDonald’s did this with the McCafe. They found that they weren’t promising enough to their customers in the area of coffee. Starbuck’s was taking away their customers in droves. So McDonald’s made a promise to develop high-quality coffee products and delivered on that promise with the McCafe. This has greatly enhanced the McDonald’s brand.

The Problems with Promising Too Much or Too Little

This whole business of making promises is serious stuff. If you promise more than you can deliver, then you lose credibility quickly and become irrelevant. If you don’t promise enough, you may never become relevant. Making a promise requires both being realistic and courageous. Here are two questions you should think through:

  • Can you keep your promise?
  • What else should you be promising?

When Apple shifted from just making personal computers to making iPods, they needed to shift what they could promise delivering, otherwise the music side of their business would have remained unknown. When McDonald’s shifted from just good food and soda to making the McCafe, they had to expand what they were promising. They couldn’t make these promises until they were ready to do so, but once they were ready they had to promise the world that they would truly deliver in these new areas.

The Problem with Changing Your Promises Too Often

A promise is not a marketing slogan or a conference theme. A promise is extremely personal between a company and its customers. Once you promise something to customers, your entire relationship with them rests on your ability to keep that promise with those people. If you keep changing your promises, then customers will start to wonder what you really stand for. Just as in a personal relationship, people want to know what you are going to commit to doing. If you constantly change those commitments, the other person will wonder what kind of a mess he or she has gotten into.

There may come a time when you have to change what you are promising to deliver to your customers. This is how you begin to redefine the brand you want to be known for. However, if you change your desired brand too often, you will end up with the brand that no one wants: “They don’t know who they are or what they do.”


Be very intentional in what you promise to your customers, be sure it matters to them, and be sure you can deliver on those promises. That is the underlying “secret” to building a great brand.

Republishing Articles

My newsletters, Thoughts on Excellence, have been republished in approximately 40 trade magazines, on-line publications, and internal publications for businesses, universities, and not-for-profit organizations over the past 20+ years. If you would like to republish all or part of my monthly articles, please send me an e-mail at with the name of the article you want in the subject heading. I will send you the article in a word document.

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