Broken Promises: When a Brand Fails to Deliver on its Commitments

Businesses make promises to its customers.  A brand promise spells out what customers can expect from the organization’s product or services.  Those promises are communicated verbally and in writing in a multitude of ways every day.  For example, a company’s website or app lists details about the products or services.  Marketing materials such as flyers, brochures and ads tout visually and in writing what is special about the company’s offers.  Employees talk up the organization’s purpose.  Signs scream the business’ intent.  The mission statement communicates the company’s promises.  So do corporate filings for publicly-traded entities.  And Contracts and Sales Agreements spell out in legally-binding detail the particulars of the brand’s commitment.

That is just the tip of the ‘brand promises’ iceberg.  Brand promises are also communicated through professional oaths as well, like a physician’s Hippocratic Oath to “do no harm”.  Attorneys take an oath when they are admitted to a State Bar Association. And CPAs take an oath after passing the exam.  For example, the North Carolina CPA oath says:  “I will support the laws and regulations of the State of North Carolina and the United States. I will perform my professional duties to the best of my ability and abide by the rules of professional ethics and conduct; and I will uphold the honor and dignity of the accounting profession by serving with integrity, objectivity, and competence.[1] That communicates what a CPA in that state has committed to do. That professional designation implies brand promises to clients.

There are a myriad of other actions and representations that spell out what a brand pledges to do or provide for its customers.  Those promises are sometimes legally-binding and ethically-binding, but they are always socially-binding.  There is a social pact between a seller and a buyer based, in part, on the brand’s promises.  Companies are expected to live up to their brand promises.

For example, for many years Bounty paper towels proclaimed that it was the “quicker-picker-upper” in its ads and on its packaging.  Introduced in 1965, this Procter & Gamble brand touted fast absorbency as a key selling point.  In 2010, they changed their brand message – and thus their overall product promise – to say the “clean picker upper”.  The package also says “One sheet keeps cleaning” and, on the back of the wrapper, it says “thick and absorbent Bounty helps you clean up quickly and easily, so you can get more out of each day.”  Procter & Gamble’s marketing team felt that consumers wanted a competent clean they could trust on surfaces their families encounter every day so their brand’s promise shifted to a “functional benefit” rather than how fast Bounty could pick up spills.  Bounty promised that a single sheet of their paper towel was strong and absorbent enough to get surfaces clean. The subtext was that they were promising to be cost effective for frugal shoppers who watch how many paper towels they use each time there is a mess that needs to be wiped.   And, for the most part, Bounty is a solid brand that has lived up to its promises.  But, what happens when a company fails to live up to one or more of its brand promises repeatedly?  Routinely?  On a regular basis?

Do Companies break promises regularly?

In a 2001 Gallup research and development survey of more than 3,100 customers, less than half of current customers felt that the brands they use keep the promises they make.  Specifically, just 38% of U.S. bank customers felt that their bank always kept its promises, while only 31% of auto owners felt that their car’s manufacturer always kept their promises, and a mere 22% of the previous year’s airline customers felt that the airline they flew most always kept its promises.[2] So, sadly, customers have become accustomed to companies breaking promises.  That may be, in part, because only 27% of employees report that they always deliver on the promises they make to their customers.  So most companies break brand promises and their customers know it.

Of course, no company is perfect because companies are comprised of people, and people are not perfect.  To err is human.  So, it is understood that brand promises are sometimes broken unintentionally due to human error and because of issues beyond a company’s control.  For example, airlines cannot control the weather but they take the blame for flight delays due to ice, snow, hail and lightning.  Also, logistics companies Fed Ex and UPS deliver nearly 6.5 billion packages a year, 99% of which are on time and undamaged, but some packages get lost or damaged or both.  It happens despite massive, intricate systems that protect against such errors.  No company is perfect and none gets it right 100% of the time.

That said, every organization should be committed to doing its level best to uphold the pledges it makes to its customers.  But, as the Gallup poll indicates, many companies aren’t doing that.  So, what happens when companies regularly fail to live up to the promises made?   After all, if most companies are breaking promises and people expect it, is that really a problem?  Simply put, yes, it is a problem in the way that a ticking time bomb is a problem.

Several things that happen when a company breaks its brand promises.

  1. Customers are disappointed.
  2. Customers feel disconnected from the company and its employees.
  3. Customers learn not to trust the brand.
  4. Customers feel disrespected.
  5. Customers no longer feel a sense of loyalty to the brand.

When that happens, brand dismantling begins.

What is Brand Dismantling?

Brand dismantling is what happens when a company regularly breaks its brand promises.  It can happen to any brand that consistently or cavalierly fails to deliver on the commitments it makes to customers.  So what exactly is brand dismantling?  It is the corrosive and ultimately destructive effect that broken promises have on the strength and stability of a brand.   Sometimes the effect is slow and is not felt right away.  Over time, customers slowly reduce their business or remove their business altogether, taking with them friends, family, and colleagues.  The attrition is like a slow leak.  In the case of a company that sells a product, customers might start trying competing products in search of one that is better.  Or, if the brand promises broken were by a company that provides a service, customers might start asking for references to other vendors.  The decline happens bit by bit.

However, thanks to social media, brand dismantling is happening more quickly now than ever before.  Betrayed customers not only suddenly and abruptly disappear — taking friends, family, and colleagues with them – but they also take people they don’t personally know but are connected to through social media.  The bigger the person’s social media platform and megaphone, the more devastating the impact to the company.  Broken brand promises can destroy a company with alarming speed, especially when one tweet has the potential to be retweeted ten thousand times over and viewed by over a million people within a matter of minutes.

Case in point.  Chipotle’s brand promise is that they make food with integrity.  Their entire brand was built on the promise of serving fresh, local food that is ethically grown and locally sourced. Their website even proudly claimed that the company used only vegetables grown in healthy soil.   So, it was more than a shock when hundreds of consumers across 13 states were sickened after eating contaminated food from Chipotle in 2016.  The news spread on social media like wildfire.  It sent the company’s stock, which had hit a record high in 2015, spiraling downward 40%.  It also launched a federal criminal investigation because Chipotle could not identify the source[s] of the contaminated ingredients that went to stores at specific times.  They broke brand promises by having an outsourced supply chain, which meant they lacked end-to-end visibility of the food from the source to store delivery in the chain.  This allowed the contamination to spread.  The lesson?  Be careful what thy promises to thy customers.  It wasn’t just that they made hundreds of customers sick, it is that their main brand promise had been badly broken and customer trust was crushed.

Though scarce, trust in brand promises is universally a top priority for consumers in determining whether to do business with a company.  That trust is in very short supply, and it cannot be bought, stockpiled or artificially made.  It must be earned by organizations through their actions daily.  It is not something that is ‘one and done.’  Consistency is a key factor in gaining and keeping consumer’s trust in a brand promise. It is not about fulfilling the promise once and moving on to the next exercise, effort or engagement.  Only routinely kept promises will nurture brand reputation and generate customer loyalty.

1 reply
  1. Bill Witt
    Bill Witt says:

    Branding so critical to growing and maintaining a successful business. Focus on your brand, take care of your customers, be ethical and don’t neglect your marketing. Image is everything.


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