Keeping Promises: A Powerful Marketing Strategy

keeping promises

Promises — what do promises mean to your customers … your employees? And, what happens when you don’t deliver what you promised? It may seem a simple part of your marketing strategy, but keeping promises offers powerful returns for your business that impact your long-term success.

To most of us, a promise is like a guarantee — almost like a contract. When a company doesn’t keep its promises, we don’t trust the brand, which impacts willingness to buy from the brand, as you can see in the graphic below.

trust on online shopping
Image courtesy of Edelman

Unfortunately, we’re all used to campaign promises that seem to mean nothing. We’ve been lied to by politicians so many times, we don’t even really expect them to keep their promises anymore. But, companies can’t be so cavalier with the things they promise consumers. Success doesn’t come from promising more than your competition but by what you deliver. If you do a terrible job of keeping promises, you face a wide range of negative consequences that can sink any chance you have for success now or in the future.

But, this isn’t a political blog, it’s a marketing blog. So, let’s shift our attention to the marketplace and what happens when you don’t do what you promised.

Promises to customers

While we might be willing to accept broken promises from politicians, we don’t seem willing to make the same concessions to companies we do business with. And we have several options when we don’t think a company has kept its promises.  We can:

  1. File a lawsuit claiming the company didn’t keep its promises, resulting in court costs and other damages
  2. Complain to management, the media, or other consumers, which requires a business to dedicate time and other resources to handle complaints and spin media in favor of the company
  3. Return products we feel don’t live up to their promises, incurring additional logistics costs for returns and handling them
  4. Boycott the offending firm, which has a serious impact on profitability now and in the future
  5. Stop buying products or services from firms who fail to keep their promises, which is likely the best option for the company unless the number of people looks more like a boycott
  6. Retaliate against offending firms. For instance, customers can fake an accident, such as a slip and fall to collect from the firm. Or, there are a wide range of retaliatory behaviors available such as lingering for a long time over a meal to tie up the table, paying for items with pennies, posting fake reviews, etc. None of these are illegal but all have serious consequences for the firm’s profits.

And, the negative feeling that results from broken promises may continue long into the future, even when the company changes strategy to ensure it keeps its promises. Thus, promises and keeping your promises are important.

Broken Promises

In marketing, consumers infer a promise even when the company doesn’t pinky swear to do something or refrain from doing something. For example, when you show a product removing a stain, the logical assumption is that it works for consumers the way it did in the video. Sure, showing a video where the product works is great but, if it doesn’t represent reality, then the first sale to a customer will be your last. And, the poor performance can bleed into damage to other products you make or sell. Instead, film under realistic conditions so buyers know exactly how to remove the stain. If the product must sit for a while, reflect that in the video in some way, such as a clock image to show the progression of time. If it doesn’t work on certain stains, clearly state where the use of the product won’t work.

Consumers inherently expect certain behaviors from companies. Increasingly consumers expect that companies they buy from behave in an ethical manner. Below are some behaviors consumers expect from trusted brands, including support for shared values.

customer trust
Image courtesy of Edelman

Firms not keeping promises

Below are some examples of specific behaviors companies might engage in that make it difficult for it to keep its promises.


Puffery – refers to an exaggeration or statement that no reasonable person would take as factual. It often occurs in the context of advertsing and promotional testimonials, according to USLegal.

While legal, puffery has a high piss-off quotient (the percentage of people seriously dissatisfied with your brand). I feel a high piss-off quotient is more serious in marketing strategy than is a firm’s satisfaction index. This is because satisfaction doesn’t predict loyalty. For instance, satisfied customers may leave to find newer or different experiences, something we call variety-seeking behavior. There’s also the notion of the grass being greener on the other side, which causes satisfied customers to try different options. Plus, satisfied customers may keep their feelings to themselves, thus depriving a firm of positive emotions to counteract the negative ones spread by dissatisfied customers.

However, dissatisfied customers leave. Dissatisfied customers also share their dissatisfaction, which spreads 5 times faster than satisfaction.


Companies may not intend to break their promises. They just over-promise — either explicitly in their advertising or implicitly by the images they use or comparisons they make in their ads. For instance, beauty brands often show images of women that don’t represent reality. I once worked at a New York advertising agency where the art department spent days retouching a photo to correct the model’s skin color, weight, and hair to make her perfect. By using this image in advertising, the implicit promise is that consumers will look like the model, even when the model doesn’t look like the image. You can’t help but fail to deliver what you promised when the advertising image doesn’t reflect something attainable.

Today, more companies are switching to images that represent real people, such as Dove’s Real Beauty campaigns featuring average women rather than waifish models. Fashion brands are starting to wise up, as well, knowing that clothing that only looks good on a runway model has less ability to convince the average woman to buy when they try it on in the dressing room.keeping promises

Poor logistics

Sometimes you fully intend to do what you promised but you’re internal processes make that impossible. For instance, maybe you over-sold and don’t have sufficient products or services available to meet demand. Or maybe you trusted a supply chain partner who didn’t follow through and either delivered defective products or products that didn’t perform as promised. Amazon faced a big backlash over the recent holiday because it was unable to honor its 2-day shipping for Prime members due to heavy volume. Even when delays didn’t impact practical concerns for consumers, they resented what they interpreted as a broken promise.

While it’s easy to argue that these problems weren’t your fault, consumers likely won’t see your point of view.

Keeping promises

One of the easiest ways to keep promises is to only promise what you are sure you can deliver consistently. When you keep your promises, customers will likely be satisfied.

An alternative is to under-promise. When a company under-promises, customers are thrilled with their experience with the brand and are not only satisfied with the product, they may be delighted.

According to Roy Posner, customer delight comes from:

understanding customers specific personal interests, anticipating their needs, exceeding their expectations, and making every moment and aspect of the relationship a pleasant — or better yet, an exhilarating — experience.

And, sometimes the little extra doesn’t even cost much. For instance, including a note with delivery is a nice touch, or including a little something unexpected in the box. For instance, my first order with Chewy included a dog treat. This then exceeds expectations and works toward building a relationship that binds customers to a brand. Apple was successful in this relationship-building over the years, which accounts for the company’s ability to sell products even when they cost more than the competition.

Competitive advantage

Competitive advantage accrues when:

the firm is able to deliver the same benefits as competitors but at a lower cost (cost advantage), or deliver benefits that exceed those of competing products (differentiation advantage). Thus, a competitive advantage enables the firm to create superior value for its customers and superior profits for itself.

You can read more about competitive advantage here.

Competitive advantage refers to something your company does better than its competitors — something meaningful to your customers. Sustainable competitive advantage is something hard to copy by your competition, so it provides advantages in the future. Sustainable competitive advantage is not only the ability to differentiate a firm from its competitors but the ability to sustain that advantage over the long run either because it’s difficult for other firms to copy the marketing strategy or because the resources other firms need to copy the marketing strategy are difficult to obtain. That’s why price doesn’t provide a sustainable competitive advantage, it’s easy to copy. The exception is when your company doesn’t pay as much as your competitors so you can offer products for less. That’s the strategy behind big box retailers like Walmart. Their massive buying power allows them to pay less for items, so they can charge less and still make a profit.

The stakes for companies trying to establish a sustainable competitive advantage get higher every year as the competitive landscape gets more crowded and the means for firms to differentiate themselves get smaller.

Customer delight as a sustainable advantage

Customer delight represents a tool that can generate a sustainable competitive advantage, thus supporting your marketing strategy.  And, while customer satisfaction may be simply the ante necessary to get into the game, customer delight can create customer loyalty that translates into long-term profitability. Customer delight also encourages customers to share their brand opinions, fan the organization, and encourage friends to experience the product.

With the growth of social media, driving these positive comments and other forms of user-generated content has a huge payoff for the firm.

How to create customer delight

  • Know your customer. Without a clear understanding of how customers create meaning with your brand, their attitudes toward your brand, how your brand solves their problems, and how customers relate to your brand relative to other brands, you can’t create customer delight. So, the first step in creating delight is to do detailed market research to understand your customers.
  • Know your competitors. Matching competitors does not create a sustainable competitive advantage and it doesn’t create delight among your customers. Meeting expectations may lead to customer satisfaction, but you have to go beyond this to create customer delight. As long as you’re only giving customers the same thing your competitors do, you’re only going to meet expectations, not create delight.
  • Know your organization. What can you do? What resources do you have? What skills do your employees bring to the table? Without knowing your limits, you risk trying to develop delight, but falling short.
  • Once you’re addressed these strategic questions, it’s time to implement your strategy. This requires:
    • Focus – generate buy-in among employees and focus on creating superior customer experiences.
    • Maintaining customer delight requires you to keep up with changes in the environment. Conduct periodic market research to ensure your marketing strategy conforms with elements in your environment.

The marketing strategy of keeping promises

  • Carefully review your advertising from a customer perspective to make sure you’re not over-promising
  • Review your manufacturing processes to make sure they conform to zero-defect standards
  • Develop service standards that ensure services are delivered with consistently high quality

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