Whilst most successful businesses have a habit of delivering what they promise to customers, some companies choose to make it their lead message i.e. their tagline, their advertising strapline, their signature brand statement.
But should these promises be literal or illustrative?
My advice is that they should be tangible when tested.
John Lewis, one of the UK’s most trusted retailers, has been using a low key strapline “Never knowingly undersold’ since 1925. This rather cumbersome language promises to match a competitor price, and although it was never widely used by customers as a day-to-day price match process, its role was to provide reassurance. However, in 2011, John Lewis proudly announced that many of its goods would now come with a 2-year warranty, extending the traditional 12 months. At the same time, it quietly added a clause change to its price promise. Unless the competitor was offering a 2-year guarantee too, the comparison was invalid, and the price promise was not honoured. The promise went from being one that was trusted in principle, to something that was only honoured after the small print and caveats were added.
Domino’s Pizza became well known for their speedy promise – 30 mins delivery from when the order is placed…or your money back. The pledge was cleverly conceived, establishing Domino’s as ‘your local pizza house’, conscious that most customers wanted delivery to be ‘as soon as possible’. But it ran into trouble in the US, when a woman who was involved in an auto accident with a Domino’s delivery person successfully sued the company on the grounds that the 30-minute pledge led to accidents. The promise was dropped soon afterwards.
Despite this, most customers still carried the tangible 30-minute pledge in their heads as a guide to ‘how long a pizza should take to arrive’.
Years later, Domino’s tried reintroducing a new version of it, titled “You Got 30 Minutes.” The idea was to tell customers that ordering from Domino’s gives them back 30 minutes they would have spent rustling up a meal. But it stopped short of explicitly promising delivery in a half hour, for fear of another lawsuit.
Eventually, in 2013, Domino’s repositioned the promise using TV ads like this to point towards quality of preparation, explicitly using the old 30 min slogan to signpost the change. Combined with a slick new website for easy (and still fast) ordering alongside aggressive promotional deals, Domino’s has been growing fast since 2014, outstripping rival Pizza Hut.
Perhaps my favourite example of getting the balance right between literal and illustrative promises is Nationwide Building Society, with its pledge “Nationwide – On Your Side”, launched in 2011 following a string of acquisitions that made it the worlds’ largest building society.
Nationwide believed that it had found a winning formula – to relentlessly focus on developing flexible financial products and delivering them in a friendly way. By acquiring other building societies, it could rapidly offer more members this same blend of product and service, safe in the knowledge that research showed these factors were what customers wanted most. At a time of deep mistrust of the financial sector, Nationwide marketed itself as the bank that had customers’ interests at their heart – “on your side”. Within a year, their survey ratings hit an all-time high. (Source: YouGov Plc. Sample size 2,114 adults. September 2012)
A simply worded customer promise can create cut-through for a brand, even in a crowded market. But they should not begin and end as an advertising slogan, even if in the short term, they may bring in new customers.
Instead, the promise needs to be actively experienced by the majority of customers in order to embed the ambition into day-to-day delivery.
It’s tempting then to follow the old adage of under-promising and over-delivering, but again this is dangerous. In a competitive market, under-promising can look weak and out-of-touch. Instead, focus on what customers want rather than what’s easy to offer, and deliver that in inventive even surprising ways. Often.