Don't make a promise you can't keep

Brands are quick to make them, but the growth of social media means that when pledges are broken the re is a greater risk of public recriminations by consumers who feel let down, writes Kim Benjamin.

Don't make a promise you can't keep

Making promises has long been the lynchpin of many marketing campaigns. John Lewis' 'Never knowingly undersold', for example, the retailer's pledge to offer the best value for the products it sells, has played a central part in its marketing for the past 85 years. In 2007, meanwhile, Marks & Spencer launched 'Plan A', a promise to increase the environmental sustainability of the business which contains 100 commitments spanning five years.

The acknowledgement of a promise from brands to consumers is not simply implicit in every purchase. The choice of a brand can involve many factors - both functional and emotional - all of which precede any buying point.

'Key to the longevity of the relationship is the extent to which you, as a brand, deliver on your promise - be that service, value or something else,' says Celia Pronto, marketing director at STA Travel.

The travel operator has a 'price-beat guarantee' on flights, that states it will undercut any economy-class standard air fares offered by high-street or online travel agents. Pronto believes that the key issue with any promise-based campaign is to ensure that brands remain in tune with what consumers want, so any pledges they make will provide cut-through.

'A promise-based strategy needs to be substantiated and believable. It can't just be a tagline - it needs to run right through an organisation,' adds Pronto. 'If the strategy is being used to help restore a brand's reputation then a lot more needs to be provided before consumers will trust it.'

Building on loyalty

In times of economic uncertainty, promises can provide a tangible sense of guarantee from a brand that goes beyond an emotional tie with consumers.

'It can bring a robustness to the communications,' says Harriet de Swiet, group account director at consultancy Brand Learning. 'The consumer is given a sense that in an uncertain, changing world, the brand in question won't let them down.'

For some brands, a promise-led marketing strategy can be used to help restore faith in a market in the wake of a scandal or shift in public opinion. For example, in post-recession Britain, the financial-services sector is facing the challenge of rebuilding consumer confidence.

Last year, Nationwide abandoned a promise, introduced in 2001, to peg its variable-rate mortgages to the Bank of England rate, for borrowers who shifted from a fixed-rate product. The building society argued that it needed to balance the needs of savers and borrowers. This prompted negative press coverage and expressions of concern from the government that banks and building societies were not doing enough to support consumers. Nationwide has now promised to pass on any future cuts to mortgage customers on its standard variable rate.

'A promise-based marketing strategy can capture people's attention and become part of the language associated with the brand,' says Alastair Pegg, Nationwide's head of brand marketing. 'It can become something the brand can campaign on, as well as a way of signalling the brand's confidence and long-term commitment, which customers will be inclined to look favourably upon.'

Commitments and promises are not likely to ring true, however, if a brand is not seen as being trustworthy by consumers. Indeed, such pledges may further erode trust, according to de Swiet.

Craig Inglis, marketing director at John Lewis, adds that it is important for the retailer to be upfront with its customers about what it stands for. This, he says, is why 'Never knowingly undersold' is a central theme in John Lewis' marketing.

'Our focus on this within our marketing is not about restoring trust; rather, it is about leveraging a powerful asset,' he says. 'The combination of great quality, fair prices and excellent service is a compelling proposition for our customers. We have confidence that our staff can deliver on this.'

Such marketing campaigns are not without risks, however. They can be challenging if consideration is not given to consumer attitudes to the industry and the brand, as well as to how sustainable the strategy is for the business.

Whether the brand can provide sufficient evidence to support its messaging is also an issue, and there is a risk of over-promising and under-delivering, particularly for service brands.

'There are very few, if any, brands in any sector, that genuinely have complete end-to-end control of their service and delivery across all consumer touchpoints,' says de Swiet.

Rob Oubridge, managing director at creative agency Aqueduct, which has worked with Marks & Spencer on its 'Plan A' activity, says that if a promise is made and subsequently broken, then consumers who believed it and bought into it will feel that they have lost out.

Brands have to work hard to earn the trust of consumers: if they get it right, consumers will reward them with their loyalty but if they get it wrong it will prove a real challenge to win back loyalty.

'Promise-based marketing or a commitment is about managing expectations and delivering on these,' says Matt Button, head of CRM at HMV. 'If you make grand promises along the lines of "we always offer you the best prices and deals", for example, but then consistently fail to back this up, you won't just lose potential sales from customers, you will lose their trust. This could affect public perceptions of your business. The key is to know your customers, engage with them and then deliver on your commitment to them.'

The greater the extent to which brands manage to do this successfully and consistently, the more they will reinforce a positive view of their business. Moreover, if a brand cannot keep a promise, it pays to be honest about it rather than risk a backlash from consumers (see box). As Oubridge notes, the best solution is for a brand to be completely transparent about how it plans to rectify the problem.

'Then the first promise they need to make after that is that they won't do it again, and they need their customers to believe this,' he adds.

Ultimately, when considering promise-based marketing campaigns, brands have to balance the attention-grabbing qualities of their pledges against the reality of delivery and the long-term trust they want to build. In other words, the old adage rings true: do not make promises you cannot keep.



In 2006, the fast-food chain unveiled a marketing campaign that went 'back to basics,' celebrating the burger. It promised the launch of bigger, meatier (and higher-calorie) varieties, including a 40% larger Big Mac, as part of a World Cup promotion, and a revival of the Big Tasty burger.

This stance marked a U-turn on previous campaigns, which had pledged to do away with super-size portions in favour of introducing heaIthy food, such as salad and fruit bags alongside the chain's staple burgers and fries.

The back-to-basics campaign was criticised by consumer groups and health experts, who claimed the message flew in the face of concerns about levels of obesity in the UK at the time and related illnesses. McDonald's said it would continue to offer a range of healthier food, while the bigger burger was on sale, and would provide nutritional information to help people make their choice.


The oil giant's latest ads, which broke last month across radio, online, television and print, featured BP chief executive Tony Hayward apologising for the biggest oil spill in US history, which has resulted in millions of gallons of oil leaking into the Gulf of Mexico.

Featuring the promise 'We will get this done. We will make this right', the ads focused on BP's clean-up efforts, with the company stating that it had helped organise the biggest environmental response in US history.

The campaign earned BP criticism rather than sympathy, however, with some PR experts claiming it was 'premature', 'shallow' and did not properly set out what BP planned to do next.