The pursuit of perfection is slowing marketers down and damaging their ability to build and shape brands that people care about, says Gareth Kay. It is often imperfect brands – the ones that show their flaws and have real roles in people’s lives – that can feel a little bit more perfect.
This month, I want to write about perfection or, more accurately, our rather dangerous pursuit of it. I’ve become increasingly convinced that our tendency towards pursuing perfection is damaging our ability to help build and shape brands that people care about for two fundamental reasons: it makes us too slow compared to the world we live in, and it reduces the resonance brands have in culture. This is not an attack on rigour or craft, but rather a celebration of the value of imperfection.
Let’s start with speed and in particular the speed of strategic and creative development. Far too many of us spend far too many months in far too many meetings for far too many brands discussing strategy in the abstract. We fill in boxes and frameworks; we focus on our silo of specialisation rather than uncovering the real problem to solve; we debate if the brand is fun or funny. We hone, research and refine ad infinitum. All of this debate and the cycle of reviews leads to strategy that appears rigorous and ‘right’ in the abstract, not necessarily in the real world.
This traditional development process is prone to a couple of large problems. First, it creates a relay race between strategy and execution where the baton quite often gets dropped in transfer between theory and its practical application, leading to work that is off strategy or less interesting than it could, or should, be. It removes the edges and dilutes the soul at the heart of the best ideas. Second, by putting all the focus on the abstract, we often end up with ideas that seem right in theory but fail to connect as intended when executed in the real world. Ironically, overly rigorous development may well lead to a propensity to create work that is less effective in the real world. We move too slow for a world that is quick to move on.
What we tend not to do is to apply shortcuts to get us to what might be useful more efficiently: to ‘show the thing’ (as the UK Government Digital Service used to say), what the strategy means through prototypes and ad-like objects. Less PowerPointing, more doing. More evidence of what this might really mean in the real world for real people. More placing small bets into the world to see what actually catches on – it’s probably cheaper and more useful than rounds of research. But perhaps the most important thing for us to accept is that good strategy is probably good enough. As Jeff Bezos said in his letter to shareholders last year, “Most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70% of the information you wish you had. If you wait for 90%, in most cases, you’re probably being slow.” High-quality decisions can be made at high velocity; you don’t need to gun for near certainty most of the time.
So, the pursuit of perfection makes us slower than we need to be. But it also causes a challenge (and an opportunity) for the nature of the ideas themselves. When you look at how brands portray themselves – from their mission statements to their product and packaging design to their communications – more often than not they try to create a veneer of perfection. They show the perfect family in the perfect moment. They show the product beautifully shot in an environment too good to be true. It doesn’t connect with the reality of 99.99% of people’s lives. It doesn’t feel used. It doesn’t feel like a life, or a brand, well lived. It feels soulless and antiseptic. It feels there is a real opportunity to celebrate the perfect imperfections of life and how brands fit in. To show our flaws, not just our strengths. To show some patina, not just veneer.
Imperfect brands – those that show their flaws, their longevity, their real role in people’s lives – feel a little more perfect. Perhaps we could think about using materials that more naturally reflect a natural ageing process. Perhaps we could reflect their long-lasting quality through ideas like Hiut Denim’s History Tag or Patagonia’s Worn Wear programme that encourages you to repair your existing clothing rather than buy new.
When it comes to their communications, perhaps there’s an opportunity to show some of the dark stuff of life rather than the perfect happy families that populate far too much of advertising. Perhaps we shouldn’t just celebrate the big moments in life but instead look to shine a light on the richness of all the small moments in between that make life rewarding and build a life well lived. Perhaps the greatest form of perfection today is the perfectly imperfect. It resonates more, and it helps us move at the pace of life, not the pace of postwar business. Maybe imperfection is right now a perfect form of competitive advantage.