How many times have you read a company's tagline and ended up shaking your head? How many times have you laughed out loud in disbelief?

I'm constantly spotting slogans and ads that promise perfection, but which I know, as a customer, are as far from the truth as Uranus is from the sun. I'm not alone. Nielsen reported that trust in advertising messages has declined dramatically in the past two years.

There are many examples of disingenuous brand promises. Take United Airlines. Please. 

As United was in the midst of acquiring Continental Airlines, the carrier posted ads in airports that read, "It's not who's merging that counts. It's what's about to emerge." I can tell you, first-hand, that what's emerged is really nothing to brag about. In fact, it's pretty terrible.

New Jersey Transit is my commute of choice. That's because I have no other choice. A year or so ago, it ran a campaign with the brand promise, "Getting you there.'"

Based upon the daily delays, I suggested it add the word "eventually" to the slogan. And, just last week, after being positively crucified on various rider websites and Twitter feeds, New Jersey Transit launched a new campaign with the brand promise: "We are listening." I chuckled silently, thinking it should add: "...We don't like what we're hearing, but we're not going to change a damn thing. Live with it."

That said, United Airlines and New Jersey Transit have an inherent advantage over the average entrepreneur: They have far less competition (i.e. I have limited options when flying to, or from, Newark Airport and as for New Jersey Transit, aside from choosing to drive and sit in two-hour traffic delays, I have no other choice.

Knowing that, like me, your firm has myriad competitors of all shapes and sizes, how do you ensure you don't alienate--or even outrage--your customers with a bogus brand promise?

1. Know that benefits trump features.

You may be thrilled about selling a computer with a third-generation Intel core processor, but what does that mean to anyone but techies? On the other hand, if your product is simplifying my life and adding a critical minute or two of extra, free time, I'll stick to you like white on rice. 

2. Tell your story through the customer's eye.

No one cares if your product, service, or people are smarter, stronger, or faster than the competitors. They want to know that you'll somehow improve their lives. So, if you know I need a car that simply will not break down, don't tell me it takes curves better than Disney's Space Mountain ride. Put your promise in a perspective that makes sense to your customer.

3. Kick the tires before making the claim.

Remember how many traffic accidents occurred when Domino's Pizza guaranteed 30-minute delivery or your money back? A few multi-million dollar lawsuits changed that brand promise virtually overnight.

So, don't do what Comcast, my cable provider, promises in its advertising. Don't tell me you're "Comcastic" when you and I, both know your service is abysmal and your customer service representatives can be more threatening than a New Jersey State Trooper. 

4. Tell the truth.

It's a radical thought, isn't it? But, if you've been experiencing product, quality, or service problems and you know that your customers know (the blogosphere always contains more negative than positive comments), you need to admit fault. At very least let customers know you're trying to address the issues.

Loyal customers will stick with you if they think you're being honest with your brand promise. Just think back to that legendary Avis tagline: "We're only No. 2. We try harder." That campaign prompted generations of businesspeople to select Avis over its larger rival, Hertz.  And, after all, isn't consideration what you want at the end of the day? Show some authenticity and--gasp--vulnerability in your messaging. 

5. Walk a mile in your customer's shoes before you put pen to paper.

Don't tell anyone you're the best at anything before you, yourself, walk in your customer's shoes and know it's a fact. Experience how you are communicating with your customer, online and offline. Test your 800 number. Ask a trusted friend to walk into your reception area and see how she's treated. And definitely, most definitely, test how easy and intuitive the communications experience on your website may be. (Note: we've been in business 18 years, and have updated and upgraded our website numerous times. But, that didn't prevent me from recently discovering we'd been marketing a new service that isn't even mentioned on our website! Needless to say, that fix is being made as you read this column).

To err is human, to forgive divine. Customers will stay loyal if you don't over promise and under deliver. That said, if your product or service truly stinks, it will soon go the way of all flesh sooner or later).

You might be wondering about my firm's brand promise. It's actually both a point of view and a promise: "Listen. Engage. Repeat." We promise clients we'll listen to their audiences before creating any communications plan or strategy. We'll then help the client engage in conversations, both online and off, and meet their audiences wherever they share their hopes and dreams and, eventually, form their decisions. Finally, we'll repeat the process, again and again and again.

That's how we go to market for Peppercomm. And it's how we suggest clients go to market (with our counsel and heavy lifting, of course).

So, what's your brand promise? Would your customers say it rings true? If it doesn't: ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.