Thursday, November 22, 2012
Recently, I had the chance to spend time with some people who market a product I admire and, frankly, lust for. The things they make are widely regarded as the best of their kind, famous around the world for no-compromise awesomeness. Needless to say, I was pretty excited to get so close to the flame. I just somehow romantically assumed these guys would be their brand incarnate. You can probably sense that things wouldn't work out the way I'd hoped. You're right, they didn't. These folks weren't one bit like the product they sold, at least in the ways that matter. I didn't enjoy my visit at all, and I doubt we'll cross paths again. Apparently, when a product is so good it practically sells itself, you don't have to be.
But it got me thinking about what we become if we don't have to try. About whether perfection, for a marketer, is ultimately a curse. Consider, for the sake of argument, the concept in Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, which has to do with accepting that things are transient and imperfect, and that these are essential qualities of beauty. I wonder if maybe they aren't also marks of a great brand, or at least of the culture that drives it. I wonder if maybe the flaw in a product, the imperfection that's the consequence of pragmatic compromise, doesn't protect a brand from complacency. And even define it.
Examples as proof are almost too easy: Consider Apple, whose history was written by the struggle to overcome its own tiny walled software garden. Or Porsche, whose determination to deny the essential flaw of a rear mounted engine produced both its culture and its cult. Or ING Direct, whose lack of branches and, for a long time, even of payment accounts, produced an exuberant customer service culture. Or Southwest Airlines, whose pay-for-peanuts policy merely reassured people they were getting the lowest possible fare. Or Buckley's, the Canadian cough syrup brand whose horrible taste was elevated to being a point of pride, becoming synonymous with efficacy. Or, much more subtly, Toyota, whose determinedly dull product aesthetic whispers reassuringly to owners every day, "you can count on me."
It's inarguably true that our flaws shape us more than our gifts do, if only because we're more invested in them. Gifts are dumb luck (and thus often squandered), whereas flaws build character. I think that might be true of brands, too. I think that if you look hard enough at a brand you love, or the one you work for, you'll find that its very best qualities trace eventually back to some quirk, some shortfall, some flaw, the overcoming of which made it what it is today. Writing this, I realize how often in my own strategic work, I find myself starting with a flaw and finding the virtue in it. How often that's where the soul is.
A former competitor of mine in the agency business used to say that he preferred to do business with number two brands because they had something to prove. I think he was on to something. If you want to make a difference, avoid people who resist change. If you want to help somebody, avoid organizations that think they're perfect. Every great thing you ever do will start with a problem. Not screwing up is just a job. Making virtues out of flaws, well, that's a beautiful way to spend your days, no matter what business you're in.