We have in the last week been reminded of what happens when an organisation loses trust by breaking a promise.

The Liberal Democrats made a lot of key, vote winning policies prior to the 2010 Election, most notably the promise to scrap tuition fees which secured a lot of student votes.  Before forming a coalition with the Conservative Government, this was supposedly non-negotiable… only a few weeks later, he and many of his party actually voted to triple these fees.  The party may well have intended to scrap fees in an ideal world, but they were simply not in a strong enough negotiating position within the coalition to promise anything to their electorate.

People have a long memory, and yesterday the Liberal Democrats paid the price for breaking a promise, losing 46 seats so far (and the final results have yet to be announced).  It is not by any means the only policy ever abandoned between the leap from manifesto to Government and nor, by any means, are they the only party to go back on election promises.  In any case it was their Conservative partners, not them, who spearheaded the tripling of fees.  So why were the Lib Dems punished more harshly?

The simple fact is that unlike most promises made by politicians in general, the audience believed the Lib Dem’s promise on tuition fees, and believed in their ability to deliver because the message was communicated very strongly.   When someone believes you when you make a promise, they are more likely to be annoyed if you break it than if they didn’t believe it in the first place.  As Friedrich Nietzsche says, “I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.”

There are not only lessons for politicians in this, but also for anyone who makes promises to their customers or their staff such as marketing, HR or senior executives.   If your audience believes your message, then you must deliver or lose their trust.

A good case in point is Apple, who have publically promised to demand the “highest commitment to human rights” from its suppliers.

A recent Panorama programme highlighted worrying practices inside the factories of Apple’s Chinese suppliers, such as workers falling asleep on the production line, staff forced to work 18 days in a row, and workers collapsing with exhaustion after 16-hour shifts.

Apple’s senior vice president of operations, Jeff Williams, said:

“We know of no other company doing as much as Apple does to ensure fair and safe working conditions.  “Several years ago, the vast majority of workers in our supply chain worked in excess of 60 hours, and 70+ hour workweeks were typical,” Williams adds. “This year, our suppliers have achieved an average of 93% compliance with our 60-hour limit. We can still do better. And we will.”

If their suppliers were based in the UK, their staff would fall under the remits of the EU Working Time Directive, whereby companies cannot force staff to work more than 48 hours a week, and that staff must rest for at least 11 hours in any 24-hour period.  Therefore, Apple’s ’60 hour’ limit for suppliers is some way behind what would even be normal in the UK, let alone the ‘highest commitment’ to staff wellbeing’.

However, despite attracting so much criticism, it is fair to note that the working practices in Apple’s China factories are only the same as those of their competitors.  As PC Pro says, “Panorama could equally have substituted Apple for Microsoft, Samsung, Sony, or even a British firm such as Tesco, which has its Hudl tablets made in the same factories as Apple does.”

Apple is not being singled out by Panorama for its treatment of workers, who are actually treated better than many others in the region, but for its breach of a promise they could not deliver on.

Promises are not something to avoid, indeed having a ‘brand promise’ for your business, staff or ethics is a terrific way to build customer confidence  – PROVIDED YOU CAN DELIVER on your promise.  If you make a promise and cannot deliver, you are in a worse position than not having made it at all.

Marianne Pettifor of Frogmore Consulting recently helped us form our brand promise for Activ Absence.  We set out a charter defining exactly  what our customers can and should expect when dealing with us.

Adrian Lewis, Commercial Director for Codel Software, said “The most important thing for us was making sure that everything in the Activ Absence brand promise is achieveable, deliverable and specific.  It is not only good for customers, it reminds us at all times of the high standards we have set ourselves and the importance to us of keeping to that and constantly delivering that level of service.”

“Anything we look to change or implement in our organisation is now looked at in the context of our brand promise, if it breaks our brand promise, it isn’t a feasible change.”

In case we need reminding on the importance of being true to our word in business, Hoover made a marketing promise of free flights in the 1990s, and the business could not afford to keep its promise of two free flights for every qualifying purchase. Their failure to deliver on that promise caused a massive loss of reputation on both sides of the Atlantic, incredibly bad publicity for the business, a £20 million financial loss and ultimately cost three senior people their jobs.   William Foust, managing director of Hoover Ltd and president of Hoover Europe, Brian Webb, Hoover vice-president of marketing and Michael Gilbey, director of marketing services were all fired and to this day  ‘the Hoover incident’  is still cited on every programme championing consumer rights.

The Lib Dems are today paying the political price of making a well-intentioned promise they could not keep.    If your target audience buy into your promises, they need to be set in stone.  You break them at your peril!