What’s in a Guarantee?

While in London this weekend I spotted BT’s new campaign posters…a lot.

The headline is ‘New Stay Fast Guarantee £20 back if your broadband speed isn’t as promised

BT's Stay fast Guarantee Billboard
BT’s Stay fast Guarantee Billboard

It’s a pretty bold offer and, as someone who has changed provider a few times over the year, one that would stand out to me.

What wouldn’t stand out so much are the small print terms and conditions on those billboard adverts:

“If after 30 days…4 claims per year…excludes outages, connection faults and home wiring…”

The caveats start there, and carry on if you happen to go to the BT website – If there’s no connection at all, it means there’s a larger underlying issue and you won’t be able to claim against the Stay Fast Guarantee… If you don’t meet either the download or upload Stay Fast Guarantee – or both at the same time – this entitles you to claim against the Stay Fast Guarantee once (highlight mine) You’ll need to wait for ten days before you can claim against our Stay Fast Guarantee again… and for full terms and conditions, it’s four clicks to get to the long tail detail…

BT do have previous for their advertising – eleven investigations by the advertising watchdog since 2015 with seven upheld.

But this isn’t really about BT – they just happened to stand out in terms of what seemed a straight forward offer but made me wonder based on previous dealings with them and their technical explanations for why I wasn’t getting or should expect what I thought I would when I signed up…

The keyword standing out in the advertising is ‘guarantee’ – according to Oxford Dictionaries “A formal assurance (typically in writing) that certain conditions will be fulfilled, especially that a product will be repaired or replaced if not of a specified quality.” Or, “Something that ensures a particular outcome.

A guarantee can be a powerful tool in Marketing messages – and, if it is stressed as a key point, goes beyond the everyday expectation we have as consumers that something is ‘going to work’ or to do what we expect it to.

It is also vastly overused and in danger of, at best, losing impact, at worst, leading to customer dissatisfaction and a feeling of being misled when not fulfilled.

Over twenty years ago I worked on a project for a flagship new edition of a product. It was one of my very first marketing campaigns and was the major promotion of the year for the company in question. The campaign was happening at a time when there were both new entrants to the market as well as similar new editions of the product from existing competitors to the company I was working with whose product was the established market leader.

After a number of planning meetings with the product’s makers (a range of designers, SMEs and production teams) and senior members of sales and marketing where everyone was absolutely, positively convinced that the product in question was superior to any of the others on the market, my suggestion was (perhaps naively) simple: offer a money-back guarantee if this wasn’t the best product of its kind you had used. The product was not going to be competing on either price (Other competitors were discounting to the point of no profit in order to get their new product into a mature market) or originality in being ‘brand new to market’ that some of the other competitors had. The product changes were, on the face of it at least, incremental rather than truly innovative (in actual fact there was a lot of technology happening behind the scenes that made this a bigger step forward but that was detail that customers would not be concerned about or fully understand and was ‘detail’) The money back guarantee, while commonplace in many sectors, was not something that had ever been done in this area. It was greeted as a bold, differentiating stance to take…and quickly started to be refined. By the lawyers, by the product team, by the regional sales teams and by the board.

Their confidence (bordering on arrogance), in dismissing the competing alternatives in early discussions shrank somewhat under the suggestion. Practicalities, technicalities and nuances started to be raised. Questions of ‘perception’ from the customer that might result in people taking up the offer were asked. Despite this being the market leader – a position it had held since its first-to-market introduction decades earlier, the idea of offering such an offer started to lose ground. It didn’t help that many of the creators of the product still viewed marketing as something of a ‘grubby’ exercise and that their product was good enough to ‘stand on its own’ without such tawdry activity. (This after about fifteen meetings where they repeatedly claimed the Marketing Department wasn’t giving them the support they and the product deserved, mind you.)

It was an eye-opening experience in beginning a career in marketing: to see a statement like (and I’m paraphrasing a little as it was 20+ years ago) “If you don’t think this is the best (x) you’ve ever used, we’ll give you your money back,  guaranteed” slowly get changed – initially word by word, until it eventually became something along the lines of: “We believe this is our best x ever” taught me a lot.

There’s a whole other article about the difference between the focus and meaning of those messages and whether a customer cares what you believe about the thing you’re promoting, but that’s not the point here. And I’m not saying I was right to have suggested the approach, or had come up with some never-before-heard-of stroke of marketing genius in my suggestion – it has of course been around at least since Josiah Wedgwood came up with it in the 18th century and was a key tactic in early Direct Marketing activities – and probably why I, who at that point had maybe read a single book about ‘Marketing’ suggested it – because I’d seen it in other products I had bought.

It was and IS a promise often used by less-than-scrupulous traders with no intention of honouring their offer and, I should be clear, this was far from being an unscrupulous company I was working with. Ultimately the campaign went a very different way and, through a variety of efforts and approaches, the product remained market leader despite the new entrants and fierce price discounting approaches others took. Customer returns were accepted, without quarrel or question, for any and all of the reasons the product had ever been returned. Everyone seemed happy.

Of course, the money-back-guarantee has a whole host of psychological implications to it – Heineken even played on the snake-oil qualities of the cliché back in 2015 using Neil Patrick Harris to promote their own offer with an ironic casualness recognising you won’t do it because it’s not worth the time and effort.

So to be clear – this isn’t extolling the values of a money-back offer.

It isn’t saying it is a clever marketing tool.

It certainly isn’t saying it is the only or best way to ensure customer satisfaction.

No, the learning point for me (or one of them) was to understand your audience from the viewpoint of a marketer – and that your audience often starts in-house rather than the end customer…

I still believe in the guarantee – it rarely tends to be a money back guarantee, and some companies I have used do it very well … three off the top of my head include Gibson the guitar makers who provide a warranty which, for the lifetime of the original purchaser, covers all reparation costs manufacturing defects, or Zippo – another lifetime guarantee. And even though it’s been a long time since I used my flip-top (cigarettes a thing of the past), I’ve still got it, and know the promise is there. Will I ever use it, or was that the key reason for my purchase? Well, that’s at least two other articles there…or newer to the market, Casper Mattresses –who put an interesting twist on the If you’re not satisfied with our product, return it within 30 days deal which has become so widespread it is commonly expected, company standard policy or even legislative depending on many of the products we use. Casper goes above and beyond that, and have managed to add a promotional twist to it – so it is not a 100-day warranty you get when using Casper, it’s a ‘100-Nights Trial Period’.

No, where the Guarantee really falls down for me is when there are so many caveats, so much small print and so many quibble opportunities that it becomes meaningless. To return to broadband provision for a moment, I’ve had enough promotional material from various providers extolling their speed capabilities – promising to deliver the best experience around but neglecting to mention up front in any typeface above the subatomic level that they do not take responsibility for any of their lines outside your house, that the speeds referred to require Ethernet, that junction boxes/ additional traffic/ peak times/ shoe size are not under their conditions.

This isn’t an article complaining about BT, or even about broadband suppliers in general. It’s about keeping things simple – about being transparent and about doing what you promise without the ‘*’ or the ‘**’ and the small print. If you need many of those, maybe the ‘simple’ offer you’re making needs closer scrutiny before you release it to the outside world.

If you’re interested in discussing transparent approaches to achieving customer satisfaction then contact me at simon@bewickconsulting.com








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