Who hasn’t felt like they’ve been misled by what certain companies profess?

The recording that states, “Your call is very important to us” as you wait 15 minutes to speak to a human being. The bait and switch buried in the fine print of an advertisement.

Businesses, through both behavior and words, suggest that we can expect certain things from them.

These promises are critical to an organization’s identity since potential customers need to know what they can expect from a business before an investment is made. You need a central promise that makes it clear how your business is different than your peers.

Some call it a brand promise. Others call it a brand essence, a differentiator or a unique selling proposition. We happen to call it “signature strength.”

Some businesses clearly do it better than others. Historically, Volvo has been very clear about its promise: safety. While it remains to be seen how its new corporate and brand strategy — “Designed Around You” — will affect the safety record of Volvo’s cars and the public’s perception of the safety promise, Volvo’s past is one of a clear brand promise of safety.

What makes a promise work?

First, the Volvo promise was very clear. There was no confusion about what Volvo wanted to be and wanted consumers to believe. Your customers and consumers need to know how you are different. How else will they know whether or not to try you out?

Secondly, Volvo’s promise was authentic; it was genuine. The surest way to failure is to erode trust by not delivering on your promise.

Third, the promise was simple; there were no qualifiers. As humans, our capacity to retain detail about thousands of brands is understandably limited. Every time we have to process unfamiliar details, our prefrontal cortex devours energy. The Volvo promise was simple. Safety. Period.

Finally, the Volvo promise was relevant. Every car needs to be safe because people are concerned about safety for their children and themselves.

In addition to being characterized by clarity, authenticity, simplicity and relevance, some leaders find it helpful to categorize their central promise.

The insights of Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersema in their book, “The Discipline of Market Leaders,” is helpful to many. After studying 80 corporations in 36 markets, they concluded that there are three broad value disciplines: operational excellence, product leadership and customer intimacy. Each provides a unique customer value.

Operational excellence

These companies are masters of execution that is achieved through standardized, centrally planned operations. Control and efficiency are hallmarks of cultures. Think Walmart.

Product leadership

These companies focus on offering products or services that go beyond the norm and push performance beyond current limits. They are at the vanguard of their industry and are rewarded for their innovation. Think Apple.

Customer intimacy

Companies in this segment focus on satisfying unique needs and building custom solutions. They aspire to be experts in what their customers need and create lasting, loyal relationships. The cultures at these companies empower their people to do what it takes to meet the needs of customers. Think Nordstrom.

Treacy and Wiersema rightly suggest that one can’t excel in all three value disciplines since being all things to all people is a losing game. Their solution is to choose one to excel at — providing the foundation for your signature strength — and be good at the other two disciplines.

What discipline are you the best at? Or perhaps a better question to ask is what discipline do you need to be the best at? Once you decide which value discipline is the best fit, how will you communicate your central promise to your stakeholders in ways that are clear, authentic, simple and relevant?

Whatever you decide, don’t let your promise outrun your performance.

Andy Kanefield is the founder of Dialect Inc. and co-author of “Uncommon Sense: One CEO’s Tale of Getting in Sync.” Dialect helps organizations improve alignment and translation of organizational identity. To explore how to discover or maximize your signature strength, you may reach Kanefield at (314) 863-4400 or andy@dialect.com.

Published in St. Louis