On the Marketing of Integrity

Several years ago Handshake while I was in business with my brother, we were working through a list of our business distinctives. Asking a few trusted friends and advisors to provide their perspective on our business, we were encouraged by one of them to list integrity as a business distinctive. It was clearly one of our core values, and she felt we should market it as such. We declined, and for good reason. I am aware that a number of businesses use integrity as a marketing tool, and some have included the word in their business name. Although most of us want our brand to symbolize integrity in the minds of our clients and prospective clients, I believe marketing integrity is an unwise practice, for several reasons.

Firstly, you will be judged by a standard of integrity. Wait, isn’t that the point? Naturally, a person (or business) of integrity will not have an issue with being held accountable, but the issue is to which standard they are being held. No matter how high you set your own standard for integrity, someone will always fault you for failing to meet theirs — realistic or not.  Promising integrity as a signature distinctive just sets you up to fail, and likely without just reason. Your customers may automatically set the bar higher for you than for others, including themselves, and when you fail to meet this ideal, the perception will be worse than if you’d said nothing.

This leads to the second point: you stand to lose more credibility than you can gain. Here’s a quick lesson: if you have to keep pointing out that you have integrity, chances are that you don’t. The question in many minds will be why you have to tell people you have integrity. Shouldn’t people just be able to see this integrity of yours without having to be told? Again, the fact you’re pointing it out can work against the goal of associating your brand with integrity. Credibility is earned by doing what you said you’d do. Let’s say that if you fail in a peripheral area, you loose a point. If you fail in your core competency, you loose two. Apply that to the things you brag about, and you find it works the same way. Meet expectations in your core competency and you earn a point of credibility. Exceed that even in the peripherals, and you gain two. I used to visit a garage that would wash my car every time I had it in for service. It wasn’t a promise or an expectation, but it was something they were pretty consistent about. On a couple occasions when they didn’t do it because I arrived early to pick it up or because they were exceptionally busy, they apologized for not doing it… and sometimes they would offer to give my car a quick wash while I waited. Nice touch around the peripherals of their core business… but what if they advertised this service and it wasn’t done when I arrived to pick up my car? You can be sure that no matter how well my car ran after its repair, I’d remember not getting what I was promised.

This notion of earning “points” for properly following through paired with the warning about your meeting unrealistic expectations form the background for a third caution, which is that the “prove it” factor is hard to overcome. What’s your first reaction to a business called “Integrity Used Cars” or “Honest Al’s”? Are you likely to take it at face value, or do you tend to think there’s more than meets the eye? Does your guard go up just a little, looking for the business to prove their name? That’s the “prove it” factor at work… with any guarantee, people expect you to prove it. And that’s fine when the guarantee is an objectively definable line. “20 minutes or free” is one of these, and even if you fail, the customer is made happy. They almost want their pizza to be five minutes late. Integrity isn’t like that… there’s no objective measure, and those prospects who realize this may expect your definition to be abnormally low… like “Honest Al.” Yes it’s cynical, but you still have to overcome it — which is hard to do when they have their guard up, or worse, disqualify you beforehand. With this type of customer, following through on what you promised doesn’t earn you a balance of “+1” point… it just gets you back up to zero. It’ll take a few more encounters to actually build up a positive balance.

Fourth, remember this rule of thumb: Don’t brag about meeting the minimum standard. I recall a splashy television advertisement for eyeglasses a few years back. As the pitch wound to its height, a spokesperson for the company boasted, “And at [ABC Optical], you get the prescription your optician ordered, or you don’t pay!” Really? Can anyone explain how that is in any way a point of differentiation? I get that kind of guarantee from a fast food chain… but they know enough not to brag about it. All it serves to do is place a doubt in someone’s mind that wasn’t there to begin with. “Oh, have they had this happen a lot in the past?” Integrity is the same. It’s the minimum standard, so if you meet it, great. But you haven’t earned the right to brag.

Finally, remember that marketing integrity is not a shortcut to having integrity, or being known for it. There’s no shortcut to integrity. And once you’ve got it ingrained into your corporate practices, there’s really no shortcut to becoming known for it overnight. To imagine otherwise is to display an ignorance of what integrity is and what it means to display it.

In the last couple of years, I’ve come to believe that there is less understanding of integrity than what I had previously assumed. This was illustrated to me powerfully in a business scenario where someone gave their word, pronouncing themselves to be a person of honour and integrity. When circumstances changed, their word was revoked with no effort to keep it despite the changed circumstances. The non-delivery on their word was represented on their part as axiomatic to the changing circumstances, leaving me to wonder what the value of their word really was if it was so easily broken. As I reflected, I summarized my realizations with an axiom of my own: The value of your word is determined by the amount of difficulty to which you go to keep it. A few weeks ago, I ran across this saying: Integrity is keeping your commitments even when the circumstances when you made those commitments have changed. I think this sums it up rather well. If you want to be known as a person of integrity, your word has to mean something. Be prepared to work hard for it and be inconvenienced in the establishment of its value. You begin by valuing your word yourself, which means you won’t easily give it away — if you do this indiscriminately, you end up tossing it aside when it becomes too inconvenient. If it’s given easily, it’s broken easily. Keeping my word means something to me, and because I value it, I will go to some degree of difficulty to keep it before allowing it to be broken. As a result, I don’t give my word flippantly. It takes time for other people to value my word as highly as I do, but when they do, they aren’t skeptical about it. It’s been proven. This, I believe is the long, solid road to establishing integrity as part of your identity — and your brand. And it’s the only truly effective way.