Keeping promises

All brands seem to be making promises to customers, but what happens when such pledges can’t be delivered?

These days you won’t go very far without one company or another making you a promise. Drive to the supermarket and Sainsbury’s promises to make your life taste better. Want to know the quickest way there? No problem, just AAsk. Sit down at your computer and Intel reassures you that it’s inside. Looking to sort out your future? The Pru will give you the plan. Gillette is the best you can get, your Volvo is for life, Olay loves the skin you’re in and John Lewis is never knowingly undersold.

Promising you miracles?

Promises, promises, they’re everywhere. They are the pithy soundbites that accompany most consumer brand logos. They’re the straplines that sign off the magazine ads, the coy voiceovers that close the radio ads, the whizzy signatures at the end of television commercials. And these days many consumer brands are not satisfied in summing themselves up with an old-fashioned, take-it-or-leave-it boast – “The world’s favourite airline”, “Power in good hands”, “The ultimate driving machine”. Instead they feel compelled to reach out to you, the customer, with a few words that offer the prospect of special care and attention, a commitment to service, a future of mutuality and delight. No more corporate chest beating and self-congratulation, today’s brands want to start a relationship.

Here is a random sample of promises you could have gleaned from a week’s worth of magazines and TV commercials: Norwich Union will quote you happy; Every little helps you at Tesco; London Energy is more rewarding; Velvet loves your bum; Everything Ford do is driven by you; Panadol is tough on pain, easy on you; You can find yourself at

It’s all good stuff. Yet too often it’s too good to be true. Ask yourself, of all the brand promises made to you, which ones do you believe? Which ones have been fulfilled when you try to buy the product, or phone the helpline, or book the ticket, or return the goods? Of all the brands you buy, which are keeping their promises and which are breaking them?

Doing the right thing by the customers

One invaluable experience we have recently had at EHS Brann, along with our colleagues at Clemmow Hornby Inge (CHI) and other agencies in the mix, has been working with Nick Smith and his team to launch the British Gas brand promise “Doing the right thing”. Most important from our perspective has been working out the implications of that promise for customer expectations.

A stance on standards

The thing about a brand promise like this is that it’s a very clear commitment, almost an ethical stance, to deliver constantly to a particular standard. It invites high expectations both internally and externally. That British Gas has the confidence it can sustain such a brand promise is based on fundamental truths about the brand, the customer and the company. As British Gas marketing director Nick Smith says: “A great promise comes from the heart of the brand and seems to connect in a way that you can’t challenge. They are rare, and the best ones are founded in truth. They also inspire change and ‘doing the right thing’ helps us continually find ways of trying to make the customers life better.”

British Gas developed the “Doing the right thing” promise with their advertising agency, CHI. The insight came from a series of customer research groups and internal staff workshops. The wording of the promise itself was the natural, but highly crafted, summation of what they discovered. From the customers it was clear that British Gas as a brand was profoundly trusted for a wide range of reasons, not least the company’s heritage and its commitment to safety. From the staff it was clear that there was a deep sense of pride and professionalism that was inherent in their approach to their work and the service they give customers. It was the marriage of these two fundamental truths that created the brand promise.

Speaking the customer’s language

Beyond CHI’s popular ad campaign, featuring Liverpudlian actor Ricky Tomlinson, the challenge for EHS Brann and our colleague agencies was to translate the brand promise into communications that directly encouraged customers to interact with the brands. The implications of “Doing the right thing” go beyond marketing. The impact of making the promise has to reach deeply into the business and how it conducts itself. It demands, in fact, a thorough re-invention of the language that British Gas uses to talk to customers.

From ensuring that terms and conditions are as simple as possible and readily understood by all, to the use of transactional data to increase relevance and convenience for customers. From new guarantees of customer satisfaction to significantly better call centre experiences. From new product development to smarter customer propositions. Everything British Gas now does is informed and measured against the brand promise “Doing the Right Thing”.

There is no doubt that making a promise like this at a brand to individual level requires considerable organisational and behavioural change for British Gas. It also requires joined-up thinking from its agencies, all of which have clarity of purpose and a clear direction to communicate and deliver the brand promise. The early signs are indeed encouraging. More and more, British Gas is proving that it does the right thing. But, as Nick Smith will freely admit, it takes a lot to align a giant like British Gas around four simple, but highly significant words.

That an increasing number of brands feel the need to make a promise to customers and not just boast at them is a good thing. The brand guardians who stick their necks out to define why customers should buy their products, not just now but also tomorrow, are contributing to the long-term health of their brands, not simply exploiting the equity earned in the past. But sticking your neck out can be a dangerous pastime if the brand promise you’re making can’t be delivered. We can only sympathise with Adam Crozier and his reassurance to every customer that with the Royal Mail it’s personal.

And that is where the skills of the intelligent direct marketer can help. By understanding the priorities of the customer and helping to shape the brand experience to meet their needs, we can help the brands we work for make promises they can keep.


Matt Atkinson, Managing director of EHS Brann

2004 Managing director of EHS Brann London

2002 Head of integration at Saatchi & Saatchi Group

2001 Chief executive officer at Interfocus Networks

1994 Regional managing director and managing partner at Tequila


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