My Brand Promise: I Shatter Limited Thinking (And How to Find *Your* Brand Promise)

For some time, I’ve been trying to come up with a few words that describes my “brand promise” I make to you. . . what you can expect when you hang out with me in person or read my stuff.

The challenge of coming up with brand promise, for both companies and individuals, is finding the sweet spot between overpromising and underpromising.

If I were to say something like, my brand promise to you is that “I spread peace and love wherever I go,” that would be overpromising. I may be able to deliver on such a promise a few minutes in a given day, but if I had to go to a 7AM breakfast meeting, and you had to meet me there, I guarantee you would not experience me as delivering on such a promise! (My brain doesn’t usually come on line until about 11 AM, and you really really don’t want to meet me before that hour.)

Yet, if I were to say something like, my brand promise is that “I’ll usually be friendly and helpful,” that would probably be true, but it would also be underpromising and underwhelming. No one is going to get excited about meeting a person with such a weak brand promise.

Well, folks, I feel I’ve finally nailed it, a brand promise for me that gets it exactly right . . . what you can reasonably expect when you come into contact with me.

I shatter limited thinking.

I promise to you I’ll always give that to you.

Here’s what I mean by this.

I find that most people are either heavily weighted towards the practical/monetary/material side of life, or the philosophical/spiritual/existential side of life. For some reason, I pick up on this dynamic very quickly, and whenever I meet someone, I sense where they are on this spectrum, I start talking to them (and introducing them to ideas and perspective) from the other side.

If you’re all buttoned-up, goal-oriented, achievement-obsessed (the kind of people I tend to meet in NYC) usually I will start talking to you (and trying to get you interested in) meditation, or Buddhist philosophy, or psychedelic music, or shamanism, or systems theory, or Burning Man.

If you’re all into finding your purpose, and finding your true self, and expressing your “deep, innermost authenticity,” and other spiritual/existential pursuits, usually I will start talking to you about making more money, starting a business, learning about marketing, sales, copywriting, and so forth.

Thus, most people who meet me and spend time with me—whether they are hard-nosed businesspeople or neon-clad Burning Man freaks—tend to experience me as expanding their horizons, introducing them to unfamiliar ideas and perspectives, and shattering limited thinking.

And that is my brand promise to you.

I shatter limited thinking.

Why (and How) to Find Your Own Brand Promise

Why should you find your own brand promise?

  • It helps focus your attention and efforts. You have a clear, simple reminder of why you’re here on the planet, what impact you want to have on others, why you wake up every morning and get out of bed.
  • You don’t necessarily need to use it as a “tagline” on your site, cards, etc. (that can be cheesy at times), but to the extent you do verbalize it, it helps others put all your work, efforts, energy in context—it helps them see the *story* of you—how all the pieces of your life and activity fit together.
  • It helps you get in touch with the ways you are a unique presence on the planet, not just another faceless office drone.

So *how* do you go about creating your own personal brand promise?

It’s simple.

As I mentioned, a brand promise is a dance between overpromising and underpromising. You want to get in that sweet spot right in the middle.

First, come up with a promise you’d like to be able to make to people, but you know would be *way* overpromising if you made it. Like, “I lead people to cosmic bliss every where I walk.” (In fact, I’ve met many people in my life in SF who say similar things about themselves.) Sadly, few of us on Earth, except perhaps the Dalai Lama, will ever be able to deliver on such a promise. So if you make such a promise, people will think, “Yeah right,” and you lose credibility.

But, just for the exercise, come up with a totally overpromising promise.

Now, go to the other extreme. Come up with a line that describes a brand promise that you know you can keep, but which isn’t very exciting and isn’t going to get anyone all that juiced up to spend time with you or meet you. Something like, “I will always be a pleasant, agreeable person.” This is an underpromise.

Now, keep ratcheting up the underpromise, notch by notch, to bolder and bolder promises, in the direction of your overpromise. Keep going, coming up with bolder and bolder, more and more exciting promises… Until you get to the point where you’re stating the boldest, most exciting promise you can make, which you also have confidence you can deliver all (or very nearly all) of the time.

If you don’t shoot high enough, no one gets excited. But if you shoot too high, you begin to sound like a flake, and your brand promise loses power because it loses credibility.

What is your brand promise?

Let me know in the comments section! Tell me what you come up with, using this method I’ve described. You may want to share the “overpromises” you came up with in the exercise, then the “underpromises,” and then the perfect, just right brand promise that went DING DING DING in your mind when you know you nailed it!

Go for it!


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  • Reply Jena la Flamme May 16, 2011 at 7:26 PM

    I love this. And yes, you deliver on that promise, Michael. You over deliver. My life never stops improving as a result.

    • Reply Michael Ellsberg May 16, 2011 at 7:30 PM

      @Jena, awwww, baby…. *Your* brand promise to me is that you fill my heart with love, my mind with electricity, and my flesh with fire…. and you fulfill on that promise every time I even glance your way. I love you, my wife, my queen.

  • Reply Fernando May 16, 2011 at 9:56 PM

    Michael, I came up with “I find often-surprising solutions to leadership and relationship challenges”.

    I think the “often-surprising” meets the balance between over / under promising. What do you think?

    • Reply Michael Ellsberg May 17, 2011 at 6:24 AM

      @Fernando– I love it! I’d take the “often” out. I think you can promise that your solutions will always be surprising. You don’t have to find a promise you can deliver on 100% of the time—if you can, you’re not pushing yourself very hard! Go for 90% and then use the 10% where you fail as learning! :-)

  • Reply Mark May 17, 2011 at 3:21 AM

    I found that I want to make people feel good about themselves most of the time. I said most of the time,
    cause I won’t be able to do it all the time and to everyone
    I’m not at the level where I can love everyone….

  • Reply Kim Brubeck May 17, 2011 at 6:19 AM

    SF’ers are narcissistic, and NY’ers are driven? Strong words from a man who has to sit through dinner with this little San Franciscan in less than a week. :) (kidding aside… GREAT content- can’t wait to meet you and Jena next week!)

    • Reply Michael Ellsberg May 17, 2011 at 6:22 AM

      @Kim, LOL! They say, everyone should live in SF (where I was born) but leave before it makes you too soft, and live in NY but leave before it makes you too hard. I just keep bouncing back and forth and back and forth… so that would make me? softhard? hardsoft? Integrated, I like to think ;-) Can’t wait to see you in NYC! xoxo

  • Reply Therese Miu May 17, 2011 at 7:03 AM

    Hey Michael, Just found your article and now following your tweets. Never really thought of this at all. I am so grateful I have guidelines to follow now. Thanks for a thoughtful and thorough blogpost. I appreciate your work here.

    ~Therese Miu

  • Reply Peter Shallard - The Shrink for Entrepreneurs May 20, 2011 at 8:15 AM

    Hey Michael, I love this! In hindsight, you’ve certainly delivered on this promise during every moment I’ve spent in your company.


  • Reply Abe June 27, 2011 at 4:49 PM

    Just found your article and enjoyed reading it. Looking forward to reading the rest!

    What you said actually reminds me of a story about a person who always walked with 2 pieces of paper. One in each pocket of his pants.

    In one it said:” for me the world has been created”.
    In the other: “the mosquito was created before me.”

    A person should on the one hand aspire to be “over promising”, be the best that he can be. On the other hand, as he is working to achieve his goals he should not let it get to his head, and remember that the ant was their first..

    You don’t want to be in any extreme and so by having these in each of your pockets you get a perspective, and look for the middle ground. I think your idea of upping a notch each time is the way to go. You find that sweet spot. After you achieve it, you up your goal a little higher. So the middle ends up moving each time too.

    You also posed an interesting situation/question. On the one hand, one should “come up with a promise you’d like to be able to make to people, but you know would be *way* overpromising if you made it”. On the other hand you said : “Sadly, few of us on Earth, except perhaps the Dalai Lama, will ever be able to deliver on such a promise. So if you make such a promise, people will think, “Yeah right,” and you lose credibility”.

    – How can you distinguish those cases where what seems to be seen as an “overpromise’ is in fact ones brand promise ,and is not an “overpromise”… How can you tell, when it’s one of those few who can deliver on such a promise?

    Meaning, those who can make this world a better place to live in, while giving others the chance to capitalize on it in a positive way? – even big ideas need cash and investors…

  • Reply TJ Radcliffe June 27, 2011 at 10:48 PM

    For some of us “I will be a pleasant and agreeable person” is WAY over-promising!

    When I ran a scientific and software consultancy my tag-line was “Rapid development, robust results”, which was essentially the brand promise I was making, although I didn’t think of it in those terms.

    Now I’m developing my career as a writer I’ve been flailing a bit for market-definition, but thinking of it in these terms makes me come up with the (perhaps excessively) alliterate “Eccentrically entertaining edification”.

  • Reply Mary Hodgins July 2, 2011 at 11:37 AM

    OK – have come up with a brand promise!
    “I offer and provide solutions”
    Initially, I had “I offer & provide solutions but let go of the outcome” because sometimes I can feel a bit hurt if others don’t appreciate my efforts. However, I feel confident that I will be able to deliver on this promise in all the keys areas of my life, work, relationships & on a spiritual level. Thanks again Michael!

  • Reply G July 4, 2011 at 10:21 AM

    Hi Michael

    I just came across your writing on Forbes and I loved it! I’ve read more of your stuff and I’m a fan.

    Here’s my brand promise: I am a conduit of two blessings – knowledge and money.

    I find that, because I read a lot, I always have some new ideas to share. Also, my friends and family always call upon me to help them out financially because I have quite a bit of money and am generous.

    What do you think?

  • Reply Oliver July 19, 2011 at 7:05 PM

    Compelling thoughts Michael, and too think that the curtailing of ones desire to satisfy a sugar rush or an artificial high, could be the quintessential answer to your other wise unfortunate demise is truly a breakthrough.

    I say this because the world around us creates what it expects mankind to believe is an ideal way to live when as you may agree in hindsight is so false…..


  • Reply LaMont Cranston August 28, 2011 at 1:56 PM

    Michael, From all that I can tell, you are a nice guy, you are very bright, a person with the very best of intentions, you are successful in your chosen career(s), and you have a very cute wife. For starters, let me congratulate you on all of those things.

    However, I think that, on venues such as this one, we owe it to our fellow human beings to tell each other the truth, and that’s what I intend to do. It is absolutely true, Michael, that there is a lot of bad information out in the world about success, careers, money, time, sex, relationships and a lot of other things, but, so far, I have not found you to be somebody who shatters limited thinking. Or, maybe, it’s just that my own thinking is so limited that it is impervious to being shattered by what you are offering.

    I hope that you get it that I am not looking to put you down or do anything like that. In fact, I wish you the absolute best. What I do question is your own ability to clearly recognize your own limitations, including in the area of thinking, and to act upon those limitations.

    If you would like to discuss this some more, I’m more than willing.

    • Reply Michael Ellsberg August 28, 2011 at 4:43 PM

      @LaMont – I’ll leave it to others to decide the merits of the rest of what you say… But I must correct here at least one factual error you make. Jena is hot, not “cute.” ;-)

      • Reply LaMont Cranston August 28, 2011 at 6:42 PM

        Michael, I am more than delighted to state that Jena does indeed appear to be hot, and it doesn’t require that I shatter my limited thinking to make that decision. In fact, with lovely women, I find that there are usually many complimentary adjectives that can and do apply, including cute, hot, captivating, enchanting, adorable, beautiful, intoxicating and on and on…ant that doesn’t included some of the more colorful ones (i.e. “built like a brick s—house,” etc.).

        I do think you’re a good writer, Michael, and I congratulate you on your success. Of all your writings, the one I find the most interesting is the piece on perfection. The concept of perfection has been around for a long time, but it has never exactly caught on big time.

        However the validity of an idea and its popularity are two different things. There even references to it in the Bible. In Mathew there’s a line that says something like “Ye must be perfect as God in Heaven.” See, it all depends on how you read the line, but I read it “Ye MUST be perfect as God in Heaven…” That means that you’re already perfect.

        I’m sure you’re quite busy with your new book and other activities, but I at least wanted to encourage you to continue examining the idea that you and everything else are perfect the way they presently exist. I think you would find that exploring the ramifications of this concept are very powerful.

        I hope you’re having a nice weekend! The Shadow knows…

  • Reply Marsh Alkire October 2, 2011 at 5:54 AM


    I was drawn to your blog and this article after reading your guest posts on Tim Ferriss’ blog. I can identify with your brand promise as I regularly seek to engage people intellectually and challenge what they accept as undeniable truth.

    Lately, I’ve found myself leaning too heavily on existential motivations to attain fulfillment and am in a bit of an achievement funk. Your post on conquering the informal job market (Tim’s blog) is the final push I need to launch a blog. Thank you for the inspiration!

  • Reply Writers I Love at What’s In Peter’s Head February 23, 2012 at 6:31 PM

    […] Michael Ellsberg – Speaking of exciting, I can’t get enough of Michael Ellsberg since I heard him on Mixergy. He covers a lot of the same ground as Ramit but in a different way. Ramit seems to dance around the point more and use sales and persuasion techniques like testimonials a lot, but Ellsberg just attacks like a tiger wielding Thor’s hammer. I believe Ramit because he’s convincing, but I believe Ellsberg because he’s so aggressively open and confident. My favorite example of this is his article about his brand promise – to shatter limited thinking. […]

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