Should brands always confess their imperfections?

Buckley's Tastes Awful Ad

Over the past few years it’s been in vogue for brands to do what not long ago would have been unthinkable. To point out their flaws, openly admit their mistakes and offer products that are deliberately less than ‘perfect’. More often than not, proudly so.

Imperfections are the latest phase in the brand authenticity movement. A movement that has been driven by the transparency of the internet and the arrival of a better informed, more cynical consumerism. Here openness and honesty (or at least perceived honesty) is seen as the key for connecting with customers through the establishment of trust and credibility.

It’s the macro force behind ‘artisanal’, ‘hand-made’ products appearing in the main stream, and such brand initiatives as Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” that employs real women rather than models in its communications. Not to mention the demise of the stereotype of the perfect mother, wife and homemaker in advertising; with the foibles of ‘real’ life increasingly taking centre stage.

Some brands just embrace a bit of imperfection to set them apart. Take value clothing brand Rivers’ standard sales caveat. Whereas most retailers do everything possible to ensure the availability of its sales items, Rivers nonchalantly admits to “Limited Stock and Sizes. Your local store may have lots or may have none”.

Canadian cough medicine Buckley’s goes one step further. The truth is Buckley’s tastes bad, but it is effective. Rather than trying to simply talk up its product benefits to override the taste issue, the brand decided to embrace it. It’s tagline? “It Tastes Awful. And It Works”.

Similarly, Vegemite’s British cousin Marmite has long played with the fact that many people don’t like the taste of the product. Marmite’s has made this central to the brand with its “You Either Love It Or Hate It” campaign. Seeing a similar ‘Lovers’ versus ‘Haters’ polarisation with its Miracle Whip brand, Kraft in the US followed suit with its “Take A Side” campaign.

Selling ‘ugly’

Earlier this year French supermarket chain Intermarche created a ‘brand’ to specifically sell imperfection. In response to the finding that Europeans throw 300 million tons of food away each year, the European Union made 2014 the year against food waste. To do its part, Intermarche identified the many ‘ugly’ (but otherwise perfectly fine) fruits and vegetables that growers throw away on the basis that they don’t appeal to shoppers.

Badged in a quirky ad campaign as “Inglorious Fruits & Vegetables”, the produce was given its own aisle and sold for a 30% discount to regular produce. Reportedly all initial stocks rapidly sold out and store traffic increased 24%.

Intermarch Inglorious fruits and vegetables

Retailers in other countries have followed with similar initiatives, including Harris Farm Markets in NSW who in September launched its own “Imperfect Picks” variation.

Celebrating flaws

But should a brand always confess its imperfections?

Apparently some of the great music tracks are at least partly so because of their imperfect authenticity; imbued with such things as stray notes, drumming mistakes and odd microphone noises. The Beetles, The Beach Boys, Bob Seger and Van Halen – to name just a few – all had hits with notable errors embedded in them.

Most people, however, wouldn’t pick up on the details of these. These songs are enjoyed holistically. Would the experience of listening to them be enhanced or undermined by having their errors pointed out?

Recently Laphroaig, a brand of single malt Scotch whiskey, launched a global advertising and digital campaign using a variation on the ‘lovers vs haters’ theme. Its “Opinions Welcome” campaign invites whisky drinkers to share their tasting notes via . The idea is to intrigue those who are unfamiliar with their whisky to try it for the first time.

The campaign was kicked off with the following on-line ad that – while clearly edited for entertainment and effect – purports “The opinions in this film are 100% unscripted. The participants were compensated for their time”. In other words, real people stating their real impressions about the product.

Some of the more curiously negative associations linked with the whiskey’s smell and taste are “like a medicine cupboard when you open it”, “a school lavatory”, “smoked fish” and “damp dog”.

Intriguing ‘Yes’, but also arguably a set of opinions a brand – especially a premium brand – wouldn’t want widely circulated. Does a brand that also claims to be “The most richly flavoured scotch whiskey in the World” really want anyone connecting it with “a school lavatory”, let alone play a role in propagating this thought?

The flip side to this is a courageous display of confidence in the quality of the product, as well as trust in the discernment of current and potential Laphroaig drinkers. An implied belief that those in the know will be able to sort out the opinions of the Philistines from those of the aficionados.

Should then any brand embrace its imperfections? Opinions are welcome.

Image Credits: Buckley’s, Intermarche, CarbonNYC [inSF!]

:Thinkshots | Thinkshot posts are observations and ideas relating to current issues and trends impacting the future of brands, marketing and marketing communications.

Our blog aims to provide thoughts and insights into brand strategy, brand management and brand building for navigating a changing world.

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