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Over-Promise Your Way to the Top

How can you make your products irresistible? Make outrageous claims--and then deliver on them. This branding expert tells you why you should and how.

The old clich� in business is that you should under-promise and over-deliver. But in a crowded marketplace, under-promising is a one-way ticket to oblivion. Because consumers and businesses are moving and shopping at warp speed these days, they won't slow down long enough to fully understand your under-promise. To grab their attention, you must over-promise.

By over-promising, I don't mean you should promise things you can't deliver. Instead, I mean you must make an outrageous claim on which you can deliver. Most companies already have such capabilities, which is why their current customers do business with them. But their marketing teams haven't taken the time to understand exactly why their current customers really stay loyal, and then articulate their unique capabilities in an outrageous over-promise.

While doing research for my most recent book, Overpromise and Overdeliver: The Secrets of Unshakable Customer Loyalty (Portfolio), I was astounded by how many products, services and companies didn't have an articulated over-promise. If you don't tell customers why they should buy from you, but your competitors do...then guess who gets the customers?

Here are three excellent examples of over-promises you can use for inspiration:

  • American Girl over-promises by offering girls dolls that will utterly enchant them...and then over-delivers by giving each doll a fascinating biography.
  • Google over-promises by offering everything a customer would want to find on the Web...and then over-delivers with an average search time of 0.2 seconds.
  • Hummer over-promises a driving experience that's "like nothing else"...and then over-delivers with an attention-grabbing design, extra comfort and a built-in Hummer community.

So how can you create your own over-promise?

1. Start by examining your vision for your company. Why did you start it in the first place? What was missing in the marketplace that you vowed to fix on behalf of your customers? I often find that the essence of a brand can be drawn from a business founder's original thoughts. You could feel it even if you couldn't articulate it. Now's the time to make that articulation.

2. What is your product or service's single, most important attribute? What makes it unique? What one word do customers think about or feel when they hear your company's name? Volvo means safety. Lexus means luxury. What does your product mean?

3. Ask your customers why they buy your products. Then ask them why they don't buy your competitors' products. In the chasm between these two answers, you'll find a beacon that points to what your over-promise should be.

4. Ask non-customers why they don't buy your products or services. Then ask why they buy your competitors' products. This pair of questions will give you insight into the misperceptions they have about your product or company, or will point you toward serious shortcomings in your offerings.

5. What emotions do your customers feel when they use your products? Why do customers pay a premium for a Hummer, a Lexus or an American Girl Doll? It's because of the way it makes them feel or because of the way it makes others feel about them. These are powerful brand-building insights you must consider when you're crafting your over-promise.

Once you've done your research and have brainstormed some potential over-promises for your brand, be sure to test them with your customers and your potential customers for effectiveness in both their ability to grab attention and to accurately reflect the actual brand experience. Too many companies make the fatal mistake of creating aspirational over-promises that they can't fulfill. It will take your customers a very short time to find out you can't deliver on your over-promise. You'll know when you've got the right over-promise because it will resonate with both customers and employees.

Now, over-deliver!

My research showed a clear pattern in the companies that were able to consistently over-deliver on their over-promises. They focused on creating unique customer experiences at three critical touch points: the product, the systems and the human element.

First, the product must reliably perform as promised--appropriate design is crucial. Second, the product must be easy to acquire, finance, assemble, use, store, fix and dispose of--this is the system. The greatest product in the world is worth far less if getting it is a hassle or if it's too complicated for customers to use. Finally, your people--the human element--must clearly understand the role they play in delivering the overall customer experience. How should they dress? What should they say? How should they act? Don't leave these details to chance, or your people will make up their own version of your brand.

Over-promise and over-deliver is a formula that's been proven to be successful by American Express, Pottery Barn, Samsung, Washington Mutual and many other top businesses. If you're willing to invest in the research required to get your over-promise right and the attention to detail required to get your over-delivery right, your brand, too, can join the ranks of the irresistible!


Rick Barrera is president of Overpromise Inc., a consulting firm that designs and executes differentiating marketing strategies for companies of all sizes.

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