Why There is Beauty (and Value ) in Imperfection: Wabi Sabi and the Pratfall Effect
Brands play a different role in consumer’s lives in developing versus developed markets, and it’s one rarely discussed considering the fundamental nature of the issue. Before I mention the difference, lets look at the similarities.
All brands, to some extent or other fit within the equation AS + B = IS (Actual Self + Brand = Ideal Self), that is we buy brands that reflect an idealised version of who we are. Nothing wrong, or particularly challenging about that. The interesting bit comes when we try and ascertain what is an ideal version of ones self, and how that is contextually relevant.
In developing markets with greater levels of inequality of wealth, brands are largely reflective of the aspirational life I want to be living. In developed markets where a reasonable standard of living has been attained for the majority of their citizens, it could be argued that brands are playing a more reflective role, of who the individual is, and what they are about.
It’s no coincidence that the fashion houses of the world are in massive growth, driven off the back of the opening up of many developing markets. Their brands are overt status symbols of what you could become.
Whilst at the same time in developed markets there is a move towards ‘realness’ and ‘authenticity’ in brands. That is brands are not presenting a glossy aspirational image, rather they are increasingly reflective of society. To this end we are starting to see brands act in ways that previously was rather uncommon.
Brands are starting to proudly show their imperfections, apologise when they screw up, and admit to getting things wrong from time to time. Take for example the recent apology by global CEO of Domino’s pizza. He admitted their pizzas tasted like cardboard, and they had to lift their standards.
Or take our campaign for Jeep where we played back the incredulous look someone got when they told someone else they bought a Jeep!
Or the relatively recent Nab ‘Break Up’ campaign in Australia, where one of its big 4 banks ‘broke up’ with the others saying it no longer felt comfortable ripping off consumers.
I imagine we are going to see more examples more often of brands showing us their negative space and imperfections. Some of you would be familiar with the Japanese concept of Wabi Sabi, where beauty is found in something imperfect. Think of a lovely ceramic bowl from Japan, it’s rarely ‘perfect’; a raked sand garden will always have a rock or two thrown in to break up the perfect symmetry. Brands will begin to latch onto what consumers already know, that is there is beauty in imperfection.
Brands have been trying to portray a perfect image of themselves, when everyone appreciates a little imperfection. This isn’t just opinion, it’s science. There is an effect in psychology discovered in 1966 called ‘The Pratfall Effect’ this effect shows that if we perceive someone as competent and attractive, we’ll see them as being even more competent, attractive and desirable if they make a small mistake.
Perhaps even more interestingly, researchers in 2012 were also able to demonstrate the effect was observed in information people received about brands as well. That is brands that had some form of imperfection were perceived as being more desirable than the brands that did not. Interestingly, this was only when the imperfection was not central to the brands proposition.
The impact of such thinking comes particularly to life when considering review culture – what’s the impact of receiving lots of positive information about a hotel or restaurant, and then dotted among that information are negative comments not central to the establishments main business – arguably you’ll like it more.
So science based opinion says that marketers should start to consider the impact that negative information, or imperfections can have on desirability. It’s something Japanese culture has known for many years, now perhaps the rest of the world is catching on?
If you want to spend a day discussing these and other marketing science principles then please make your way to Sydney, Australia to be a part of MSIX (Marketing Science Ideas Xchange) (link = www.msix.com.au), the largest marketing sciences conference in the region.
I recently spoke about this subject matter at #Nudgestock, the wonderful behavioural sciences conference organised by the irrepressible Rory Sutherland, and his team at Ogilvy Change. Also, for an audio link on the same subject you can listen to MIX-FM here.
Aronson, E., Wilerman, B., & Floyd, J. (1966) The effect of a pratfall on increasing interpersonal attractiveness. Psychonomic Science.
Shiv, B, & Tormala, Z. (2012). When blemishing leads to blossoming: The positive effect of negative information. Journal of Consumer Research, 38, 5, 846- 859.