A popular definition of a brand is that it’s a promise, one that is often made by the tagline or even the brand name itself. When that promise is kept, loyal customers are created. But when it’s broken, that brand will face an uphill battle. That difference between the promise and the actual experience can be called brand dissonance, yet far too many brands continue to make promises they can’t keep.
Perhaps one of the earliest examples of brand dissonance is the naming of Greenland, a mostly ice-covered land, two-thirds of which is inside the Arctic Circle. Greenland got its name from Erik the Red, a Norse explorer who sailed there after being exiled from Iceland in 982. Hoping to entice settlers to the island, he named it Greenland, which was partially accurate at its southernmost tip for a few months of the year. But it was a far harsher climate than Iceland, which is warmed by the last surge of the Gulf Stream and its significant volcanic activity. Settlers coming to Greenland had to have ultimately felt duped by the pleasant-sounding name and promise of a verdant land. (And no social media to vent their frustrations.)
Closer to home, and this century, is another severe case of brand dissonance, the United States Postal Service. Although at times underappreciated for the enormity of the tasks they undertake and the relatively low cost they charge, most people would agree that their service is slipping. Mail can take days or weeks to travel short distances and sometimes is never delivered at all. Reports of automated equipment being removed from service don’t help. Yet the USPS is blithely going forward with a marketing campaign using the tagline, “Priority: YOU!” I’m their priority? It certainly doesn’t feel that way when it takes a week for an envelope to go six miles.
The moral of this story is simply that making a promise that sounds good doesn’t mean a thing if a brand can’t deliver on that promise. It may make a customer avoid a brand and speak poorly of it to others. Of course, there are varying degrees of brand dissonance. “You’ll love the taste,” is a common refrain for food products (and a weak one). But most people assume that liking a certain taste or flavor is subjective. A fruit and berry company called Camposol uses a tagline, “The Berry That Cares.” Really? Does anybody believe that? Probably not, but their berries are usually fresh, and you can count me as a customer. Yet my loyalty is minimal. I’ll buy a different brand if they are fresh too.
It may seem obvious to make a brand promise that you can keep, but far too many brands slip into cliches like “Our people make the difference,” or “Putting the customer first.” A basic test is to ask your customers if they actually see your central promise as a key differentiator for your brand. Ask them if your people seem exceptional. Ask them if they feel prioritized and treated well. Is it really the taste that matters most? Ask them a few other questions about their brand experience while you’re at it. If the answers are consistent with your promise, congratulations. If not, there may be some brand dissonance that needs attention before your customers head out for Greenland.