There’s power in the word promise, both in having promise and in making one. Serious make or break power, capable of building and destroying companies, teams, relationships, people. Even brands.
As kids, one of the first life lessons we learn is to keep our promises. Promises made and kept are the foundation of trust and without trust there’s no real chance for meaningful relationship. Between people. In companies. With brands.
But promise has another meaning as well. Having promise means having an amalgam of talent, intelligence, likeability, and hope. In this first week of the new baseball season, we talk about new prospects or young teams with promise. In corporate circles, we talk about new products or new employees with promise. We say it anticipating greatness.
To have promise is to have the world in front of you with an invitation to change it. Promise lies at the heart of every challenger brand there’s ever been.
So why is it so few actually live into theirs?
WHEN IT COMES TO PROMISES, BRANDS ARE LIKE FRIENDS.
For consumers, brands are like friendships. Some relationships, usually those that span a lifetime, are damn near unbreakable. If you’ve been eating Oreos, or driving Chevrolets, or insuring your house with Allstate for 30 years, there’s very little those brands could do or say that would cause you to wake up one day and shift to Chips Ahoy, Ford, and State Farm. Why? Because of all the promises made and kept over those 30 years. That’s why it’s so hard for a challenger brand to get traction. If a brand you’ve loved for a lifetime disappoints you, it’s a bad day. If a new brand fails to deliver, it’s unreliable and unworthy of another chance.
Of all the emerging challenger brands over the past two years, none have been hotter than Tesla. Just within the past year, the stock price for Elon Musk’s electric car company has soared from $248.21 to $389.61 a share, all without producing a car that costs less than the average annual salary of most Americans.
Last week, Tesla’s stock plummeted 14% on word of a fire in one of their Model X cars that promises auto-pilot transportation. This, after yet another delay in the production of Tesla’s Model 3 which promises to bring an upscale, affordable electric car to the masses. Then a corrosive steering mechanism bolt led to the recall of 123,000 Model S sedans — the car that promised to provide revenue while the Model 3 worked through its growing pains.
Many are predicting the bloom is off the rose at Tesla. That reality is finally beginning to set in. That being a challenger brand and a disruptor in the auto industry isn’t as simple as Tesla made it look. That all remains to be seen. But what is clear is that investors are growing weary of Tesla’s unkept promises. For a challenger brand, that can be deadly. (See New Coke, Crystal Pepsi, the Apple Newton, Clairol Touch of Yogurt Shampoo, the HP TouchPad and the Edsel.)
FIRST STEP IN THE CHALLENGER BRAND BLUEPRINT FOR SUCCESS? KEEP YOUR PROMISE.
So if an underdog brand doesn’t have the history, the attention, or the marketing budget to compete, how in the world can they ever hope to get traction with consumers and step into their promise?
The answer is in making and keeping one.
Challenger brands are like new friends. We’re attracted to them BECAUSE they are new. They might be attractive, or funny, or intriguing, or delicious, or cool, or watercooler worthy news. But at their heart, challenger brands – like new friends – offer the promise of something great. We’re drawn to a spark. We understand there’s a great chance the spark will go out. But there’s also a chance that spark grows into a flame that burns forever. And we want to be able to say we were there and played a part in starting the fire.
The determining factor is the ability to make and keep that first promise.
Think about the brands loved by the masses. Apple. Amazon. Netflix. Google. Starbucks. FedEx. Coke. Now think of your first interaction with them when they were new. Or, at least, new to you. What was it that allowed them to connect with you? And what have they done that caused you to continue grooving that relationship day in and day out?
At the beginning, they clearly showed promise. An expectation of something great that you wanted to be a part of. Then they made promises about productivity, ease, reliability, taste, and variety. Promises they kept over and over and over again. But only after they kept them the first time.
As the great Will Rogers once said, “you never get a second chance to make a first impression.” If you’re an underdog brand coveting word of mouth, fighting to get noticed, battling for consideration, you may only ever get one shot — so be ready. Know who you are. Know what you can deliver reliably. Then make the most of the opportunity. And whatever promise you make, keep it.
It’s literally the most crucial interaction a consumer will ever have with your brand.