I was telling a friend this week about my recent experience buying a new washer & dryer from Sears.

I bought a Sears Kenmore brand. Over the past few years, Sears has been on a real push to update their image and be in the forefront of the American buying public's mind. So, having seen all of their commercials over the past few years, Sears did seem to be the place to go to find the top brands at competitive prices.

And while they do stock top brands, and their prices are competitive, I will never shop at Sears again.

For a brand to be relevant and chosen by the consumer, it needs to show tangible benefits to the consumer. All I had to show for my Sears experience was a massive headache, a double charge on my credit card, and a botched delivery.

I admit, for parts of this problem I have no one to blame but me. I did my research, narrowed down the features I wanted, checked up on the models I was interested in...and then I made my fatal mistake. I made my final choice based on price.

In the current economic climate, many brands are moving to low prices to push products. However, strong brands can command premium prices--that is one of the hallmarks of a solid brand. It only erodes a brand's strength in the marketplace to appear to be price driven. People will usually pay more for a brand they know, or feel they know, and trust. And, premium prices equal premium service, usually. And by letting my head be turned by a lower price, I paid the price.

Here's what happened: I ordered my new washer and dryer online in late January from Sears, planning on having it delivered in late February to our new house. At the end of the transaction, I was asked to choose a delivery date from the two-week window given, or to check the box to have a customer service rep call me to schedule a delivery. I checked that box, and voila, my order was placed.

Two days later I got an email informing me my washer and dryer would be delivered on January 27th! WHAT?! I never specified a date, and I specifically asked to be contacted to arrange delivery.

So I called Sears. Sears told me they would move it back to my chosen date of February 27th. Then, our closing date was moved up, so I called Sears to change my delivery to February 21st. And here is where the fun really began….

I was told that Sears was unable to move delivery dates up, but could only move them back. After much to and fro-ing about this, I was told I could move it up by essentially allowing them to re-place my order, then credit me back for the old order. So, to move up my delivery date, I had to start a whole new transaction with Sears.

At this point, my head was pounding, so I gave in and allowed Sears to do this. Then I was told in order to get the original order amount credited, I would need to call another number since the computer systems didn't “talk” to each other! Over an hour after starting, I had a resolution of sorts.

In order to succeed, brands need to be coherent, consistent, and offer value and tangible benefits. Apparently, Sears--at least in my case--lost sight of this.

After talking to others about my experience, I began to hear similar stories about Sears. This, perhaps, might explain the troubles the company has faced over the past years.

Brands can command premium prices. But in order to do so must offer something the consumer is willing to pay a premium for, namely, service and quality. I mistook advertising for the brand promise, a common error. I thought that since Sears' ads showed happy people with helpful staffs and well-known, quality brands, that therefore I would be getting that experience.

As we all well know, advertising is not always based in reality, or even in truth. Too often these days, companies promote the brand, but fail on the brand follow-through, thereby weakening the brand value, equity, and eventually market cap. Many companies seem to have a disconnect between the brand and the delivery of the brand promise.

Please, if you all never read another word I write, read and remember this: The value and profitability of a brand lies in its ability offer not just a good product, but a good service!

Brands should have as their main focus the customer, and their needs and wants. People will pay more for the experience and peace of mind a brand can offer. All levels of a company should be tuned into a customer's needs and perceptions.

No where in that equation is room for experiences such as not being able to change delivery dates, requiring customers to call several numbers to get a resolution to a situation, and having to make customers buy the same product again just to meet their needs!

So what is the moral of my sad little tale? The Sears brand has been irrevocably damaged, at least for me, and I have now remembered the golden rule of branding: You get what you pay for, not only in product but in service and support.

If customer satisfaction is compromised, so is the brand's equity. And if equity is compromised, the brand's performance suffers, and its place in the marketplace is weakened, perhaps permanently.

The true value of the brand for the consumer lies not only in the product's performance, but in the product's support and service.

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Kristine Kirby Webster is Principal of The Canterbury Group, a direct-marketing consultancy specializing in branding and relationship marketing. She is also an Adjunct Professor of Direct Marketing at Mercy College in NY. She can be reached at Kristine@canterburygroup.net.