How many times have you seen ads for a company that touts their “promise” and “values:” superlative customer service, on-time guarantees, 100% satisfaction, and so on?

Now, think about how many times you have actually felt like that promise was delivered? If you are like the group I recently talked with and presented to at the DM Days NY marketing conference, you are few and far between.

Let's review a basic premise here--just what is a brand promise?

Simply stated, the brand promise is a company articulating what their customers can expect from their interaction with a company. For example, if you say you will have someone's car in and out of an oil change in 30 minutes, that is the promise.

Brands, and the brand promise, are powerful in the mind of the consumer because of what they say about the organization, as well as delineating what the consumer can expect from giving their business to an organization. In the arena of advertising and marketing, advertising is known as above-the-line efforts, and marketing is known as below-the-line efforts.

Brand values are how companies can explain to their employees just what the brand is, and how to deliver on the promise and values of the brand to the marketplace.

Brands are not just one-dimensional logos and catchy jingles; brands are actions. They are three-dimensional, and become so by having employees interact with customers to bring the brand and its promise and values to life.

Brands must not only meet--but in this competitive marketplace exceed--customer expectations to earn the loyalty of customers. A colleague recently sent me this gem of a quote: “Brands exist because they meet important customer needs in compelling ways. They thrive because they exceed customer expectations.”

Indeed. In fact, to a great extent the exceeding of expectations can only be done by human contact--the delivering of brand value by the brand employees. Or, what I have coined as behind-the-line marketing.

In this century, we live in an age of largesse. Have a headache? There is no shortage of pain killers to choose from to alleviate it. Thirsty? Why, you can get a headache just trying to choose from the dozens of thirst quenchers in the marketplace. Want to get away from it all? The choice of hotels is dizzying in its breadth.

But what makes a customer choose a brand again and again--what really cements the relationship--is when the promise and values of the brand are delivered. Again, and again, and again.

I was thinking of how to best summarize all this for you, and decided I have seen it stated much more succinctly than I ever could in Managing the customer experience by Shaun Smith and Joe Wheeler.

All too often companies stop at high-level brand values--such as responsiveness, trustworthiness, and friendliness--without ever articulating how those values will be brought to life for customers in a way that differentiates the organization from competitors, and without ever articulating how employees will need to behave to deliver on the promise (my emphasis). But all the values in the world are meaningless corporate decoration unless they're translated into consistent action.

You might be wondering why I quoted that passage. It is because I just had the first-hand experience of what happens when that statement is not understood. To protect the innocent, I won't mention the hotel by name (but there are enough clues here so you should be able to figure it out, if you really want to).

In New York this week for the conference, I stayed at a hotel where every single employee I encountered in my first 10 minutes in the door--from the man who assisted me out of the taxi, to the man who held the door, to the people who monitored the check in line, to the desk agent, to the bellhop--constantly told me of their “service promise.”

What was this promise? If I found something that was not to my satisfaction, I should tell them, and they would take care of it. To quote from their website: “If you're not satisfied, we're not satisfied. [The company's] service promise ensures you'll have a great stay, or we'll make it up to you with an instant discount, points for our rewards program--or even money back. All you have to do is tell us.”

I will ignore the obvious argument here (obvious to me, at least), as to why satisfaction is NOT a reliable measurement of customer loyalty, and not a metric for a brand to strive for.

What I noted in those first few minutes is that all the employees I came in contact with were parroting the same lines, but with a dead tone in their voice. They seemed to have been given a script with words to say, but no one had taken the time to make them truly understand the words, why they are important, and especially their role in delivering on the promise.

Rather than using the promise to empower their employees to do all they could to bond with customers, they were giving their employees one more rule of employment--no background, no training, and no valuable tips on how to do this.

This is more than just internal branding needing to be explored; this is making the employees understand to the fiber of their being how they can make a difference, how they can integrate all the corporate words into their individual actions that deliver on the promise and offer value to the customers.

The words in that script had turned them into oracles of one-dimensional phrases. The words are a starting point--not an end point--from which to turn words into actions, which is what the brand is!

Only through taking the employees onboard and explaining to them the true role they have to play, and the power they hold, in being a bridge between the brand and the customer can all the promises and values in the world have real meaning and offer true value.

People bond with people, not parroted phrases or ads or bold statements. Go three-dimensional, and I guarantee your employees, your brand, and your customers will thank you!

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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