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7 min read

Lost promises and blown marketing budgets

Messaging & Positioning | Product Marketing Strategy

Cast your mind back to the last time you saw marketing on billboards, subway trains and others websites and when you actually think about it, you'll realise the marketing:

  • Tried to make a company/model look amazing (LOOK HOW COOL WE ARE)
  • Looked like a “coming out party to the business” (WE JUST GOT FUNDING, WATCH OUT)
  • Was a quirky way to show off the marketer's intelligence. (LOOK HOW SMART WE ARE)

None of which think about the customer, at all, which is the antithesis of marketing, as a whole.

We don’t market for ourselves, we market to others.

With that in mind, I think before anyone spends any time marketing, it’s best to think about this:

How might we influence the customer to trust us to deliver the value that they want/need when they need it?

That’s it.

What does influence, trust and value mean?

Make a promise — making the right commitment to people at the right time builds influence, trust, and communicates value.

And keep it — Doing what you say you’ll do when you say you’ll do it builds value in every transaction and communicates trust that leads to influence.

That’s it.

The tough part is making sure that both sides of the deal are allowed to make promises and keep them. Marketing is a two-way street, a dance between two things (people, company, idea) that allows a trust to build.

That dance should be led by a concept I call a Unique Sharp Promise (USP), and more about that later.

Following through on a promise is the difference between Nike and say, Charter Communications.

They have close to the same market cap, but Charter only sustains it due to a monopoly. Nike makes money hand over fist because they follow through on their promise (“Just Do It”) and keep it (everything else they do).

Miss a part of the cycle, and voila, you’ve got broken marketing.

No one likes to feel ripped off.

Charter makes me feel ripped off.

I hate paying them.

They win because they are the only game in town.

As creatives, we don’t have the luxury of regulation to protect us.

Don’t be like Charter.

Let’s take a look at a company that gets it half right and a few examples of companies including one that made me spend 30x the money I planned to with a smile on my face.

Photo by Olga DeLawrence on Unsplash

The other day I got a “free dollar”

One day, in New York City, I went to lunch.

Not a rare occurrence.

However, what happened on my way there was quite interesting. I saw a street team handing out dollar bills and fliers. With a head of steam and a heart of curiosity I approached and took a look at their offering.

They handed out a dollar, and along with it gave a flyer for a class. The company was leveraging the power of reciprocation to get people into the door for their offering.

At first, I thought — genius.

Here is a company making a promise using the power of reciprocation.

Quick side note about the psychology behind reciprocation: As humans, we love to see our transactions complete, especially with strangers. In fact, we don’t feel right when we get something from someone until we give them something in return. Some companies, like AOL, used this to change the world. You remember those free CDs? That got a lot of us on the internet.

The promise — give us 22 dollars and we will help you get fit. In fact, I’ll give you a dollar to remind you that we are serious.

But on closer inspection of the flier I noticed, while the company was using psychology to get people to the door, they didn’t execute on the offering to make it stick.

They don’t make it easy for the customer to find out how willing they are to keep it.

This flier misses out on the promise they could deliver on.

As Seth Godin would say — This is broken.

What they didn’t get right?

If I were a potential customer, my next step is unclear.

When something is unclear, I have to think. When customers have to think, you lose them.

This company had the chance to start that process but dropped the ball. It starts with the flyer — when I get this flier, I have no idea where to go.

Here are some questions I’d have:

  • Where exactly, are these gyms?
  • What do I have to do to sign up?
  • Does this mean anything, anyway?

Instead of me thinking about how am I going to get to my next class, I have to think about what I need to do.

No one likes to think.

Momentum crushed. Instead of having me as a customer, they end up here, as an example.

Certain brands get this right, no matter the medium.

Take Allen Edmonds for example.

The last time I walked into an Allen Edmonds store I was treated as if I were the only customer in there. The manager walked up to me, introduced himself, brought me a water and walked me through every single question. I came in there for socks ($20) and left with a pair of boots, socks, and collar stays (around $600).

I’ve had the same type of experience dealing with customer service when my shoes got scuffed. Red carpet service over the phone, free shipping, and updates along the way both coming and going.

They held my hand and was rewarded for it with not just my money there, but me raving about them in a story that has nothing to do with shoes.

Every brand has the ability to do this.

Remember with AOL, as soon as you put in that CD it was off to the races. There wasn’t much to think about. They made a promise and kept it all the way from the grocery store to your first A/S/L.

If you don’t allow the customer to make a promise, no matter how slick your marketing is, it will never reach it’s potential.

Potential Fix — Make the next step easy and answer questions along the way.

An idea: With the QR code an instant sign up “free class” , right on the spot that leads them to schedule it in the next 15 minutes. Get them in the (virtual) door as soon as they get that dollar and make it easy to complete the transaction!

So how do you get there? Read on.

Photo by Andre Benz on Unsplash

We’re trying to have a conversation!

Let’s get back to Subway ads, shall we?

In New York City, companies spend thousands of dollars for the privilege of being in your commute space.

What is the average subway ad you see?

Non-sequiturs and poetry about a super cool product that you need to put a nondescript code to use when you get back to your apartment.

I hope you remember whatever the brand promise was between “Showtime” street performers doing backflips, someone quoting religious texts while slamming on the doors and the “cute” abstractive copy.

Let’s get back to basics, shall we:

I, company, intend to solve X problem for you doing Y. Here is why we are unique. This is our unique sharp promise (USP).

Good ads give you a promise. It doesn’t have to be a wall of text, or literal. What it does need to do, however, is gain your trust as a consumer and help you make your promise back to the company.

This is what I call a “ unique sharp promise.” They cut through the noise to the people that need to hear it like a knife.

Sharp promises, promises that showcase your specialty, do just that.


Be direct, and don’t care if you are speaking to someone who doesn’t understand.

To show you it isn’t all doom and gloom, let me show you something I loved — and ad from Justworks:

The promise is in the details. What are we good at? It’s all there. If you’ve ever been in charge of figuring things out on the fly, well, this speaks to you. If you haven’t, well, no need to communicate.

Compare this to other ads that feature poetry (direct to consumer companies love post-modern verse for some reason), and it is pretty clear this is talking to someone directly, and fast.

They are making me a promise “I’ll help you when you have Bossface.” and you are free to make a promise back “I’ll run my benefits through you.”

Good marketing has opened the door to conversation.

When I get off the train I can’t forget your ad. Hell, I may even take a picture of it.

Photo by Alex wong on Unsplash

Marketing is about promises

Remember, when you take away the gloss and sheen of the word marketing, we are merely trying to improve our influence and trust. Making promises, especially the right promises, is hard to do.

It requires research, know-how, and trust and seeing marketing as a conversation.

As a marketer (and I believe we are all marketers - even us product people) we have to be open to leading that conversation with trust and value so that our influence doesn’t go to waste. There is a graveyard full of companies that haven’t followed through with that, no matter how much money they’ve raised.

Before you begin anything, ask yourself:

How might we influence the customer to trust us to deliver the value that they want/need when they need it?

And figure out what promises you’ll need to make, and to whom to gain their trust.

Then fight like hell to keep it.

Written by:

Adam Thomas

Adam Thomas

Adam Thomas is a PM expert, speaker, coach, and the creator of the Survival Metrics framework for product teams. Get his biweekly free product coaching on Substack: https://theadamthomas.substack.com

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Lost promises and blown marketing budgets