The Customer Experience
Shifting now to the external brand side of your business, you’ll discover that the essential strategy is similar to your strategy with internal customers or employees. This simplified unification is the foundation of a world-class organization’s competitive edge. In the context of the World Class Excellence Model, the first element of the Six Ps Customer Formula is the promise—the up-front commitment being made to the brand and to the culture. As the catalyst of the business success formula, everything that follows the promise (the delivery of the products and services) should exceed whatever is being promised. For the brand side of your business, the promise involves much more than just marketing or advertising.
Communicating the promise of your brand encompasses any efforts made to entice external customers to purchase the products or services you offer. Though the external promise is strongly influenced by the internal culture, this chapter explores how to ensure that the promise you’re making to your external customers is one that will attract them and one you can actually keep.
Most business leaders don’t realize the effect that their everyday communication has on their customers and employees because they never ask. Many people don’t reveal their thoughts and feelings publicly, so unless leaders seek them out, they can only guess.
World-class businesses are aware how their communications—including marketing and advertising—have an impact on people’s behavior. Both external and internal customers make important choices—such as with whom they will do business or for whom they will work—based on this information. What sets world-class organizations apart is that they know both their customers and employees actually view these claims as personal promises.
It’s human nature to take promises personally—regardless of whether it is in a personal or professional setting. How these promises are made and kept determines the ultimate success in maintaining loyal customers and faithfully engaged employees. Failure to live up to promises can be disastrous—even if we don’t know we’ve made them!
At the core of this promise is trust. In their 2003 book Vitality: Igniting Your Organization’s Spirit, Chuck Lofy and Mary Lofy define trust as a “felt sense of safety.” They see it as an instinctual feeling, even a “gut” reaction. Thus, “Do I trust what you claim about your product or service is the best choice for me?” is a concept that can be applied to the brand promise.
How well is your brand trusted? Trusting the integrity of your word is at the core of your promise. Once trust is legitimately earned, a relationship can be built that can thrive for many years. World-class organizations consistently deliver excellent products and services to optimize their promise to external customers. In this chapter, we look at these key aspects of the promise:
• defining the brand promise
• differentiating the promise
• communicating the promise
• maintaining the promise
• delivering the promise.
Defining the Brand Promise
What makes for an effective brand promise? Consider how well your brand aligns with your values and vision. Your brand promise should be a natural extension of the core of what you really are. Carefully avoid sending any messages that conflict with your core.
The brand promise should also connect to your target market. How does your promise support your Customer Compass? When you connect with people’s essential needs, when you consistently exceed their expectations, then you have a powerful promise.
The goal of your brand is not to create perfect, universal appeal. Walmart and McDonald’s, leaders in their industries, appeal to certain consumers while turning off others who are a poor fit for their particular products and services. By using the Customer Compass, you can convey your promise in the language with which your customers can best connect. This is particularly true as it relates to understanding the individual’s felt need. One consumer may choose a Volvo because its safety record may help them feel more in control. Another consumer may prefer a Porsche because they may value status or excitement. It all comes down to that individual’s overriding needs and wants.
World-class organizations ensure that they align their brand promise with their core and connect to the Customer Compass.
Differentiating the Promise
Product or service differentiation is vital for the success of any organization. These days, it’s almost impossible to retain all the messages we’re bombarded with. It’s important that your brand promise is able to break through that noise and provide a different and better experience.
Umpqua Bank is a bank in the Western United States with more than 350 branches in Oregon, Washington, California, Nevada, and Idaho (Solomon 2016). It started with the philosophy of treating customers as if employees had known them all their lives. While other banks were trying to process customers without coming inside, the intent of Umpqua Bank was to make banking a personal, friendly experience for everyone who came through its doors. That attitude continues to distinguish the bank from its competition. It offers “pleasant surprises,” such as providing a computer café, local music, and even its own blend of coffee to those who come in. Bank associates are all trained in services Umpqua provides; there’s no waiting for “someone else” to help you. They are empowered to go the extra mile for customers without worrying that their hand is going to be slapped. The facilities are also conducive to the customer experience. Many of the bank’s locations even offer after-hours activities, from financial seminars to knitting and book clubs. As part of its efforts to “befriend their community,” the bank offers employees 40 hours of paid time each year to volunteer locally.
Another example of a company that has successfully differentiated itself is Netflix. Originally, Netflix was all about renting mail-distributed DVDs. Then the company changed its focus to online streaming and, in a massive shift within the entertainment industry, began spearheading original content—releasing more titles the past few years than nearly all other competitors. This dramatic pivot has resulted in almost immediate success, and more Emmy nominations than well-established industry production companies.
World-class brands have very distinct “looks” that set them apart from the competition. Consider logos, for instance—when you walk into an airport, what color is associated with the different car rental companies, like National? Avis? In each case, these companies “own” their color for their industry. Consider the meaning of anything associated with making your promise (such as communication and symbols) and ensure that you connect this meaning to the reality of how you are different and better than your competition.
The first step in differentiating your promise is to be brutally honest about who you are (brand), your core competencies, and where you are going (your vision). The second step is to thoroughly understand the capabilities of your competition and how you compare. A common and critical error many organizations make is to inflate claims about their products or services. If, for example, you are not the fastest overnight delivery service in the world, do not profess to be. Bankruptcy courts are full of business owners who boasted that they were something that they were not. The natural consequences of the customers eventually finding out the truth was to stop coming—and tell all their family and friends to likewise avoid that business. Do whatever possible to uncover the truth about your strengths and weaknesses and have the courage to act—and speak—accordingly.
That said, being different for the sake of being different is not branding. Yes, you will be noticed, but not necessarily in a way that solidifies your business standing or increases customer loyalty. In short, build on the real benefits you can honestly provide.
Communicating the Promise
Business owners will often delegate the branding of the company to the marketing and sales department, while they work on other “more important” operational aspects of the business. This is usually a big mistake. In the mind of every customer, marketing, sales, public relations, and community relations are connected to operations as part of their overall experience. Most Fortune 500 companies are where they are today because of a comprehensive, fully integrated approach to branding that helped create a seamless, unified experience, whereby operations, marketing, and sales are aligned to offer a deliverable promise to everyone in their market—and you can do the same.
Consider the great logos out there, like those of Coca-Cola, Apple, Marriott, and Disney. Great brand promises are communicated in a few words, symbols, or colors. The logos for these brands are connected to an explicit message the consumer receives about what that organization is promising.
Entire graphic arts books have been written about the psychology and practice of effective logo development. But branding is much more than a logo or a tagline. When done effectively, a logo represents the promise of an experience—and it acts as a conduit to deliver the message to the minds and hearts of customers.
Maintaining the Promise
Maintaining the promise involves more than creating and following corporate logo guidelines. Of course, your promise will be much more effective if all your collateral material has a consistent look and feel. This helps over time to build consistent brand recognition. But there’s more to maintaining the promise.
Too often, in challenging times, businesses are quick to alter their identity in an attempt to draw new attention to their products and services. These changes to the brand confuse customers. Instead, consider how the iconic brands have used the same taglines and logo for many years—for example, Nike’s “Just do it” and the swoosh. Here’s one informal rule: When you have become tired of your logo, tagline, and branding efforts, that’s about the time they are starting to sink in with your customers.
Media and collateral may need updating and refreshing, but keep your promise consistent at all costs. This reinforces the appropriate messages of your established brand to your key audiences. Remember, your brand is the core identity of your company. It is the total of every experience (marketing, collateral, product, and service) that your customer has had with your company. Your brand is more important than any advertising, public relations, or direct mail campaign you will ever execute.
Delivering the Promise
World-class organizations do more than make promises. They also deliver on them. That’s why the other five Ps have so much weight in making an organization successful. It’s the integration and execution of those Ps that truly builds a great brand. That’s why the promise is not just about marketing, nor should it be left to marketers alone. It’s about the entire organization being clear, focused, and supportive in delivering what the consumer is being promised.
One place where the promise becomes apparent is in the automotive world. Automakers spend billions of dollars promoting their vehicles and building brand awareness, yet the 2018 American Customer Satisfaction Index indicates that in terms of car brand perceptions, Lexus and Toyota not only ranked first but have consistently outdistanced other automakers. This is no big surprise, because these same brands consistently perform well and are ranked best in their classes in matters like reliability, design, quality, and safety. World-class organizations have discovered that when your brand aligns with the deep wants of your customers, meeting or exceeding your brand’s promise leads to superior results.
Both big and small organizations are capable of crafting and communicating brand promises. But what separates world-class organizations is consistently delivering on their promise. Whether it is called internal branding or any other trendy name, there must be an obvious alignment between what the organization promises and the resulting ultimate experience of external customers.
Next Steps for Building Your Brand by Fulfilling Your Promise:
What promises do your customers think you have made to them? Do they trust your promises?
Can you define your brand promise so that the response from your customers is instinctually positive?
How do you align your promise with the core of who you are as an organization?
In differentiating your promise, do you stand out from your competition? Do customers respond to what makes you different?
Do you provide consistency in how you maintain the promise?
How do you deliver your promise so that there is integrity between what you say and what your customers experience?