Real-world branding strategy: Your brand is the promise that you keep.

Date: November 19, 2020
Author: Kristin Zhivago
Man holding up his hand as if making a promise

I have a real-world definition of branding strategy, based on working as a revenue coach for hundreds of companies and interviewing thousands of customers. It is this: “Branding is the promise that you make; your brand is the promise that you keep.” To help company leaders put this truth to work to increase their own revenues, I explain that they keep (or break) their branding promise with five tools: products/services; people; processes; policies; and passion. 

This is the most practical answer to the two most-often asked questions about branding: “What is branding?” and “What is the definition of branding?” because it is actionable. It’s a straightforward formula you can apply to your own situation, right now. You can figure out what needs to be fixed, and work on fixing it. 

I should mention here that the promise that you keep is more important than ever, because customers have absolutely no problem at all finding other customers who have bought your product or service, and asking them what they thought of it—or reading reviews from your customers. Complete strangers can find someone thousands of miles away who has experienced your offerings and has a story to tell. That genie has been out of the bottle for years now. The truth is out there, and no amount of marketing can overcome the promises sellers have broken. 

Now let’s dig down a bit on this actionable branding strategy, looking at each of the five promise-keeping tools.

The five tools you use to keep or break your branding promise

1. Your products and services. Surprisingly, in my experience as a revenue coach, I haven’t run across many terrible products or services. Most of the time, they have been created by people who have significant knowledge about their line of business, and they set out to create something useful or pleasing for others.

Now, I should mention here that I don’t work with jerks, so I have managed to avoid those who create something substandard or harmful. Fortunately, because customers can share their bad experiences so easily, it’s harder for jerks to fool potential customers for long. The word does get out. And, by the same token, those who take really good care of their customers and turn out a superior product or service enjoy positive recommendations from their customers, which leads to more revenue.

So if you really have set out to make the best solution, and work diligently on continuing to improve it using feedback from customers, you don’t have much to worry about in this area. Keep up the good work. 

2. People. Similarly, for the most part (and again, because I don’t work with jerks), most of the people in most of the companies I’ve worked with are pretty darn good. They work hard, they are intelligent and well-meaning, and they often see things that could be improved before company leaders do. The best company leaders pay attention and are open to those suggestions. 

This is super important, of course; nothing is more demoralizing for good people than to be asked to work on something in a way that is bound to fail. The best people start looking to leave when this happens more than once. So the best way to keep great people is to make good decisions, and one of the tricks to making good decisions is to be open to feedback from customers and your own good people. 

You also need to make sure that your people are in the right positions. An outgoing sociable type is not going to be happy staring at spreadsheets all day; and a person who loves staring at spreadsheets all day won’t be happy in a job that requires sociability. And, it’s best to hire as much for character as for skills. 

One of the best lessons in the book Good to Great is “first who, then what” —“get the right people on the bus and the right people in key seats.” 

I would also say that if there is anyone on your staff who is lazy, negative, or deceptive, fire them. Fast. A whole team of wonderful people can be dragged down by one team member who behaves this way, to the point where they give up and leave. 

You will be the last to know, because no one wants to be the snitch. You need to keep asking around, keep checking, and keep observing. If you are open to the possibility, you will see the truth. Don’t hesitate. 

Every single time a client has let this type of person go and replaced the person with a true team player, everything changed for the better. And, the person who was let go ended up being happier somewhere else. 

3. Processes. Oh, boy. Now we come to the Biggie. Ninety percent of the time, when I have worked with a company to increase their revenue, this is where the problems are. Sure, you can make improvements in the other areas, but in fact, everything else pales by comparison. 

When Amazon emerged in the mid-90’s, I thought to myself, “This is going to be interesting. A company whose core offering is processes, not products or services. He’s building the infrastructure first.” Of course, when he started out, Amazon was unprofitable for years. But Bezos had another magic bullet that escaped the naysayers: his processes were focused on making it easier for people to buy. To this day, Amazon sets the standard for making it easy for people to get what they want, share their experiences with other customers, and learn from those who have purchased. 

Jeff Bezos, now the world’s richest man, has proven the power of a laser focus on processes and infrastructure. 

I wish I could say the same for all other companies. Instead, the focus often lies elsewhere. Processes are seldom given the attention they deserve. 

The truth is, you can’t keep any of the promises you make without solid processes. I knew that when I started our own company; the first person I hired was an “infrastructure manager” who also happened to be an “app whisperer.” I already had clients when I founded the company, who were expecting the same level of service as they had at my former agency (friendly split), and I had to move fast—and smart—in order to meet those expectations. Clients assumed that services would continue uninterrupted; that was a promise they thought I would keep.

Which brings me to another point. So many companies make the same promises as their competitors, because they are making “industry baseline promises.” Boats are supposed to float, planes are supposed to fly, and the food you eat at a restaurant shouldn’t poison you. These seem obvious, but consider the consulting service that promises to “serve you with a professional team.” Or a software product that will “improve your efficiency.” 

These promises fall into the “Well, duh!” category. Customers reading these promises are asking, “Yes, but what makes you different? What can you give me that I can’t get elsewhere?”

These days, processes are very much app-centric, which is why I recently wrote a blog about managing in the age of apps. Your apps should make it easy for your people to do their jobs; people should not be entering information in more than one place; data should be smoothly integrated; and it should be super easy to use apps to keep promises made to customers. 

The only way you can be sure to keep your promises is to be ruthless about your processes. Anything that bogs down the smooth operation of your company needs to get top priority. Bring everyone involved together and map out your processes. Diagram them. Figure out how to fix the ones that are broken. (“Find it, face it, fix it.”) Do this over and over, until your whole company runs like an incredible machine. 

4. Policies. Bad policies, while not as fatal as bad processes, can also cause companies to routinely break their promises. In Tony Hsieh’s book about Zappos, he reveals that one of their policies is to encourage their people to go above and beyond to help customers, no matter how long it takes or even if there is nothing in it for Zappos.  

Policies start at the top. If the CEO is a jerk, the policies will be anti-staff and anti-customer. A kind but strong business leader will create policies that make sense to both workers and customers, and will give workers the freedom to make wise decisions while in the middle of interacting with customers. They will know that the boss will appreciate a decision based on honesty and generosity, and act accordingly. 

Bad policies will lead to bad decisions, and good workers forced to make bad decisions will become discouraged and unmotivated. “This is stupid. I can’t believe we have to do this,” pretty quickly turns into, “I’m done with this. I’m going to start looking around.” 

Keep an eye on your own policies. I’d even suggest a twice-yearly meeting with your staff to review your current policies—changing, adding, or removing policies as needed.

5. Passion. A passionate company leader will infect the rest of the company with enthusiasm. The vision, the determination, and the appropriate focus of a passionate leader makes work more rewarding for everyone. 

If the leader loses that passion, or investors bring in someone who doesn’t have it to start with, things will start to go downhill. Life will start to seep out of the company. Opportunities that should have been pursued and decisions that should have been made will go unattended. 

We see some of this now with business owners who have owned the business for 20 or more years, and now find themselves competing with more digitally savvy competitors. It’s discouraging. They are losing their passion for continuing. 

We also see it with business founders of any age, who start the company imagining a wonderful, profit-filled future, and the reality surprises them. The “small” aspects that they aren’t very good at (we all have our strengths and weaknesses) turn into big things when they become the leader of a company. Someone who is creative and visionary might be a total disaster when it comes to the company’s financials. Someone who is good at the financials might lack vision. 

These problems cause company leaders to either: 

  • Passively ignore the problem and hope it will go away. It won’t; in fact, it will only get worse.
  • Hire someone but just turn it over to them completely. Which means the leader will never learn enough to manage it properly.
  • Try to do it themselves. This is better than doing nothing, but will pull the leader away from the more important duties. And, it still won’t be as good as it could be, if it were done by someone who is good at it.  

Meanwhile, the company suffers, and no amount of passion will overcome these growing problems. 

What’s the big lesson here, regarding branding?

Branding is not just some tagline or clever phrase. It’s a promise. A promise that you and your team can keep. 

If your branding is making promises that your company can’t keep, you will end up paying hard-earned money to promote something that doesn’t even exist. 

One by one, customers will discover that you are not who and what you say you are, and they will disappear. 

This is the reality. As a customer, you know that is exactly how this works. As sellers, it’s easy to get all wrapped up in fancy “marketing” exercises and miss the whole point. 

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