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Business Journal

Killing the Brand

Companies routinely undermine their credibility by overpromising what they can actually deliver

by William J. McEwen

Every company knows the mantra. “Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Don’t lie to your customers.” It seems so simple and so clear. That’s because you don’t build a strong brand by failing to deliver.

Yet companies continue to violate this fundamental principle. The result: Company communications, much like campaign promises, are inspiring more cynicism than enthusiasm. Some observers have even claimed that advertising messages no longer have the power to move consumers to action. Overpromising leads to consumer overload and, frankly, undermines brand image.

However, today’s marketers still make promises they can’t keep. Often, companies that make these promises are reaching beyond their grasp. They know where they want to go, and they have defined the customer experience they’d like to provide. The problem is, they can’t deliver that level of performance yet. But instead of waiting until they actually can deliver on the promised experience in every customer encounter, they go ahead and announce the offer.


Mazda is in the process of launching its new Mazda6 sports sedan, heavily supporting it with $138 million in advertising. That’s understandable and smart. When a company has real news to deliver, its marketing communications activities should accelerate.

Mazda’s marketing director has underscored the importance of this new vehicle launch, stating, “We know we need this car to drive our overall business.” What’s especially interesting, in line with that statement, is the comment by one analyst that “it looks like they finally have the products to meet the claims in their brand image campaign.”

Finally? Mazda has been promising cars that “Zoom-Zoom” for almost three years, since mid-2000. And yet, according to some, the company is just now beginning to make good on its performance promise -- the core message of this memorable ad campaign. Is it smart marketing to create consumer expectations that the brand can’t really fulfill for several years?

Perhaps no real damage is done by generating excitement for a brand that may need a kick-start. Maybe it’s just another instance of harmless advertising puffery. After all, Mazda’s ongoing ad campaign has been highly noted and well received. The “Zoom-Zoom” tag line is familiar to many consumers.

But lacking products and services that can fulfill heightened consumer expectations, Mazda faces disappointing sales. The company’s year-versus-year sales for the first three quarters of 2002 greatly lagged the percentages reported for key competitors Honda, Toyota, and Nissan. And projected sales for 2002 actually showed a decrease of about 2% versus 2001.

Some of this decline may reflect a general industry sales slump. But some of it probably represents the reactions of customers who had been promised “Zoom-Zoom” but encountered something decidedly less. What’s more, Mazda risks endangering its future consumer relationships, which ultimately affects the health of its brand.

But let’s not just beat up on Mazda. Consider Target, which has asked consumers to “Expect More. Pay Less.” Target’s same-store sales were down a reported 5.7% for November, while rival Wal-Mart saw a sales increase of 2.9%. The reasons for the decline in Target’s performance, in the words of one industry observer, must include the fact that, “The hip, witty vibe created by the advertising doesn’t always translate to the stores.”

Even more examples abound. A bewildering number of banks promise immediate personalized attention but deliver long waits and recorded messages that claim, “Your call is important to us.” Cosmetics promise transformational glamour. And yet, in the words of Procter & Gamble’s chief executive, “Too much of beauty care has been promises unkept.”

Pursuing transactions versus relationships

Fast food, hotels, beer, weight-loss programs, investments, airlines -- marketers in all these categories also seem to have followed the advice of the old Arpege ads: “Promise her anything. . . .” The problem is endemic. Gallup surveys have shown that, across a range of industries, about one-third of the average company’s current customers aren’t convinced that the company always keeps its promises. That’s a shocking figure. The net result is a loss of customer confidence that -- as Gallup research has also shown -- creates an unstable, disengaged, and unprofitable customer connection.

Why do companies play this game? Because, in their headlong pursuit of short-term volume goals, they have focused on creating transactions -- building traffic count, creating trial, moving metal -- and not on building relationships. Why? Because that’s what companies typically measure, and that’s how their managers are held accountable. So companies make promises, hoping that the more powerful and grandiose the promises are, the stronger the consumer response will be. But the more powerful and grandiose the promise, the tougher it will be for companies to keep it.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Yet as long as short-term volume and transaction data remain the metrics of business success, the situation will continue. Until companies adjust their sights and reset their goals on creating enduring customer relationships, overpromising will remain rampant.

Overpromising generates transactions. It stimulates trial. But those trial won’t be followed by repeat purchases. Overpromising engenders customer disaffection, disappointing those who were attracted by an expectation that remains unfulfilled. The long-term consequences for companies, customers, and stockholders are anything but positive. And that’s a promise.

William J. McEwen, Ph.D., is the author of Married to the Brand.

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