Strengthen Your Brand—With Your Flaws

In many aspects of our lives, we’re conditioned to chase after perfection. We often find it hard to overlook even minor flaws and shortcomings in our purchases. So we naturally gravitate to messages and appeals that lead us to believe we can acquire, achieve, or experience the ultimate in some way.

But…do we really?

In a notable audio experiment conducted by a Harvard psychologist, an actor was recorded answering a series of questions. During one segment, the actor pretended to spill a cup of coffee on himself. Two large groups of students were presented with the recording; however, one group received a version including the spill incident while the other got a version without it. Afterward, both groups were asked how likeable the respondent was. Results showed that students perceived the coffee-spilling version of the actor as more likeable.

In another study, hundreds of people were asked to indicate which of two cookies they preferred—one with a smooth, perfectly baked edge or another that had a rougher, uneven-looking appearance. The one that looked more home made was preferred by a large majority.

We all know nothing’s perfect. So despite how much we pride ourselves on having high standards and insisting on them from others as well, these studies reveal that we value approachability and un-perfection more than we’d like to admit. We recognize and appreciate qualities that reflect our human-ness.

The findings from these research examples should give marketers pause when developing brand strategy and messaging. Rather than always striving for ways to claim category superiority or leaning on data-heavy proof points, a faster path to the hearts and minds of your audiences might lie in being transparent about limitations and focusing on qualities that make you relatable and a welcome addition to an individual’s life.

Some of the most successful brand campaigns ever have taken this approach. The Volkswagen Beetle campaign of the 1960s embraced the car’s anemic performance and homely design while highlighting the more important qualities of great fuel economy and reliability. For decades, Avis cheerfully admitted that it was #2 in the car rental business behind Hertz, and cleverly used this as their motivation for striving to make customer service and the rental experience its highest priorities. Guinness has forever touted how the slowness of the pour needed for its product is paid off with unmatched flavor and richness. And Smuckers has made fun of its goofy name as a clever segue to the quality of its jams (“With a name like Smuckers, it has to be good”).

Admitting weakness, in appropriate categories, appeals to consumers’ emotional intelligence. It shows that you recognize your audience’s awareness and understanding of the real world, and aren’t wasting their time with arrogant blather (who likes a show-off anyway?). Of course, you need to make a strong case of why audiences should overlook your flaws and embrace your strengths. But being upfront about some shortcomings demonstrates your honesty and helps build the most valuable asset any brand can have—trust.

If you’re in a marketplace filled with competitors trying to out-boast one another, take a step back and explore an approach that humanizes your brand. It could end up being the perfect solution to helping you stand out.