(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY For years I've been telling people that they should look better with their clothes off -- you never want to set high expectations and disappoint. No, I'm not in the porn industry. This is about marketing. And one of the biggest mistakes marketers make is to oversell or overpromise -- and under-deliver.
It's true whether you're marketing a company, a product or yourself.
Think of the iconic, simple, solid look and feel of Apple's (AAPL) products. They hold the promise of a product that's powerful, easy to use, and of high quality. If they didn't deliver on that promise, Apple's brand would be irreparably tarnished.
Steve Jobs understood that, his own personal brand notwithstanding. As Lou Hoffman, president of a Silicon Valley-based PR agency, once told me, "Just because you wear a mock black turtleneck, blue jeans and sneakers doesn't make you Steve Jobs."
Now, think about your Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn (LNKD) profiles. Do they position you as something you're not? Could be a big mistake. No, I'm not saying your profile picture should be from when you first wake up in the morning. You don't want to scare people.
But if, for example, you're going to call yourself a guru of something, you'd better be able to deliver on that promise. Better still, don't even use that word; it sounds like you're full of yourself. It's okay if somebody else calls you a guru, but a little selfless humility goes a long way, if you know what I mean.
Here's another example. Former Campbell Soup (CPB) CEO Doug Conant sees himself as an "idealist-realist." At first, I thought that was a contradiction, but his point is that the most effective leaders combine a compelling and inspiring vision with pragmatic, roll-up-your-sleeves execution. I agree; that's a powerful and engaging combination.
I was once pitching a marketing campaign to the executive staff of a large, public company when one of the executives asked, "Why do we even need to spend money on all this PR? Why don't we just do it?" I said, "Because it's far more powerful if we tell people what we're going to do and then do it."
Here's how to build a strong, iconic brand, whether it's for you, your company or its products. Create a vision, a mission, a goal -- call it what you want, it's a promise to customers. And then make sure you deliver on that promise. Not just once, but over and over again, every time a customer interacts with you, the company or its products.
One more thing: If and when you screw up, and you inevitably will, own it. Take your licks, then vow never to do it again and do your best not to. If you can't make that promise, if you keep falling short, then maybe you set the bar too high.
You know the expression "putting lipstick on a pig?" Well, it only works temporarily. If you're lucky, you may get a second chance to prove it was a one-off. But you won't get a third chance, that's for sure.