The Empty Promise

In marketing and public relations, much is made of the need to differentiate a brand from its competitors and to carve out positioning that is unique.  And rightly so.  But there is a corollary to brand differentiation, at least in my book, which adds that distinctive positioning must also be grounded in reality.  This might seem obvious, but it’s surprising how often facts get disregarded in the interest of crafting a compelling story.

Marketing and public relations people expose themselves to problems when their positioning strays from the truth. Fanciful thinking, wishfulness and outsized aspirations afflict most of us from time to time, but when they co-opt the positioning process or an organization’s message, credibility can quickly erode. This takes many forms, from mild exaggerations to unsubstantiated claims to laughable distortions. With some executives there is an arrogant belief that if you simply state something, it is therefore true, regardless of the facts.  This practice often goes unchallenged, but sometimes it backfires.

I learned this the hard way early in my career when a company owner told me they were the oldest winery in their region.  I dutifully incorporated this nugget into my pitch to a major publication and was delighted when the story ran in the business section. Then the trouble started. The true oldest winery in the region contacted the reporter to complain about the error. The reporter in turn called me to check on the discrepancy. When I asked my client about his claim and explained what had happened with the story, he dismissed the other winery as not being family owned or continuously operating or some other such parsing. I relayed this to the reporter, but it did little more than confirm the mistake, and he was forced to run a correction. My attempt to build a relationship with that reporter ended abruptly, to my dismay (as I recall, that reporter soon went into PR, and I got a second chance to build a relationship with his replacement). I learned an important lesson, though, about verifying claims.

While this episode could have been little more than carelessness on the part of the company owner, it illustrates the importance of precision and accuracy in a company’s positioning.  A more common occurrence involves fanciful messages that are unsupported by facts. In wine public relations we see this from time to time with wineries that claim their wines are “artisanal” or “hand-crafted.” Part of the problem lies with the fact that these terms don’t have precise definitions, but when a winery ties its positioning to artisanal winemaking, it must have some grounding in truth. Do you use small-lot fermentation? Do you hand-pick and hand-sort your grapes? Do you at least age your wines in French oak barrels?  If a winery cannot point to a couple of generally accepted artisanal winemaking practices, it might be better to consider different positioning. Otherwise it’s an empty promise, and some wag might well call them on it.

Then again, maybe I’ve got it all wrong. The ultimate gauge of success is how a product sells, and if enough people buy it because they think it’s artisanal, who cares what the media say? I was stuck in traffic recently and noticed a beer ad on the back of a delivery truck that proclaimed Miller – The Champagne of Beers. Who in their right mind, I thought, would consider Miller the Champagne of Beers? I know a thing or two about Champagne, and I could think of no basis whatsoever for that statement. Yet Miller is one of the most successful brands in the world. Pretty savvy marketing, I guess; I’d just hate to have to use the Champagne angle in a media campaign for Miller.


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