Winning with weakness

With audiences crying out for authenticity, celebrating ‘Pratfalls’ and flaunting flaws could be the perfect strategy for brands

September 2, 2019

Winning with weakness

Why would a low-budget airline happily publicise the fact that it refuses to let passengers reserve seats, gives them little legroom and is shrinking the amount of hand baggage they can take? What kind of fast food marketer pays to remind people that their chicken-serving brand recently ran out of chicken? And why would one of the world’s largest car rental businesses repeatedly advertise the fact that it’s not actually Number 1?

If you take any reasonably rational view of how and why people book and buy things, then the marketing strategy for Ryanair makes no sense at all. Neither does a hugely popular recent campaign for KFC – and neither does the classic 1960s campaign developed by advertising agency DDB for Avis. And yet in both brand and business terms, every one of these campaigns has delivered spectacular results. Brand tracking showed how KFC turned around the negative sentiment that resulted from well-publicised delivery problems, after it ran witty ads owning up to them. The Avis ‘We Try Harder’ campaign turned a $3.2 million loss into a $1.2 million profit in under a year – and remained a cornerstone of the brand’s identity for half a century. And Ryanair has spent years growing profits while apparently going out of its way to make passengers lives miserable.

These successes are no fluke. They’re the result of one of the most mysterious forces in brand marketing: The Pratfall Effect. It’s powerful, it requires courage and skill for marketers to make the most of, but it’s been behind some of the most creative and compelling campaigns of all time. And with the Pratfall Effect finally tripping and stumbling its way into the mainstream, it might be time for B2B marketers to start finding ways to flaunt their flaws.

From embarrassment comes empathy
The Pratfall Effect was first discovered by the psychologist Elliott Aronson, who showed in a 1966 experiment that observers found a smart, clever person who committed a blunder more likeable than one who didn’t. Aronson’s blunderer was a student who appeared on film answering 92% of questions in a college quiz, but then spilled a cup of coffee and got yelled at by the quiz master, which only some of the students got to see. His experiments showed that people who saw the coffee mishap found the student significantly more likeable than those that didn’t.

Aronson’s work suggested that pratfalls make people more likeable because they make them more relatable. Mishaps and mistakes happen to everyone; they’re an inevitable part of life, of being human. When somebody who’s otherwise demonstrating how smart and clever they are suffers from one, it’s a timely reminder of how much they still have common with the rest of us. It enables us to identify with them more.

If you subscribe to the view that people buy things for purely rational reasons, then it’s difficult to see how this effect could benefit a brand or a product. We may like people more when we see that they’re fallible and human – but surely, we like products and services a lot more when they’re faultless?

Emotional marketing’s secret weapon
However, if you accept that brands work in different ways; that they get their strength from being memorable, distinct and forming emotional connections; then the power of The Pratfall Effect quickly becomes apparent. At a time when audiences crave authenticity and can get suspicious of automated and potentially de-personalised experiences, reminding people of where you go wrong could become an essential marketing strategy. It humanises a brand more than any other tactic can.

Up to now, B2C brands have shown a far stronger willingness to lead with their weaknesses than B2B ones have – a product of the assumption that people make consumer purchases on the basis of emotion and B2B ones on the basis of logic. However, with new research from the likes of Les Binet and Peter Field demonstrating the importance of emotion and memorable branding in B2B, it’s time brands in this space considered the value of flaunting their flaws now and then.

How the pratfall re-writes category rules
Before famous campaigns for Stella Artois, Lyons Cakes and Guinness, you’d have been hard-pressed to find a consumer who would have told you they wanted “reassuringly expensive” lager, that a cake could be “naughty but nice” or that they were happy to twiddle their thumbs waiting for a product that promised you, “good things come to those who wait.” However, the power of The Pratfall Effect comes from persuading an audience that something they’ve always assumed is a weakness might not really be a weakness at all.

Positioning brands this way delivers differentiation, invites people to value different things to those they are told they should value (such as speed, low cost, health), and produces a deeper emotional alignment that’s based on reality. It talks to bits of the human experience that everyone else is ignoring, or pretending doesn’t exist.

And this perhaps holds the key to B2B marketers finding a way to leverage The Pratfall Effect more confidently, unlocking its potential to humanise their brands and make them distinctive.

People know brands can’t be brilliant at everything – just as we know that people aren’t brilliant at everything. Prioritising one thing typically comes at the expense of something else. When a business is honest about that prioritisation it can strengthen its appeal, make it more credible and make it feel more fully rounded. We’re seeing how everything adds together; not just being sold just the best-looking parts of the package.

Brilliant at the things that matter, honest about those that don’t
That’s the secret behind Ryanair’s trick of continuing to sell cheap flights while going out of its way to stress how awful your experience will be. At the end of the day, passengers care a lot, lot less about how much legroom they have or how much extra they have to pay for their bags than they do about whether they’ll reach their destination safely. When low-cost airlines first took off, the obvious question that passengers asked was how they were able to sell flights for so much less. The low-cost carriers couldn’t afford people to think they were cutting corners on safety. And the best way to show they weren’t was to point out all the other things they weren’t spending money on instead. Pointing out weaknesses in one area implies strengths in others.

It’s not difficult to imagine how this might work in today’s B2B space. If your app takes slightly longer to load than your competitor’s might that be a result of the level of security you apply? If it takes longer to answer a customer service call, is that because you’ve got real experts on the end of the phone rather than outsourced call handlers? Does the process of applying for a business loan take longer because you’re serious about responsible lending standards and matching the right financing package to the right customer?

How to execute a better pratfall
As with great physical comedy, the power of the Pratfall Effect is all in the finer details of how you execute it. An aspect of the original experiment that’s often ignored is that Aronson’s student had almost completely aced his general knowledge quiz prior to spilling the coffee. It was the fact that the subject was set up as being exceptionally bright that made the realisation that he was human all the more attractive. Similar experiments have shown that when someone who appears mediocre pours coffee all over themselves, they get even less respect than they did before – as if they are simply revealing new depths to their mediocrity. This isn’t a pratfall, it’s a consistent pattern of incompetence – and that’s never attractive. Not every mistake your brand makes or every weakness in your product is there to be celebrated. Admitting apparent shortfalls only works when your strengths are apparent too.

Ryanair gets such value from its pratfall-infused PR strategy around lack of legroom and cabin baggage because for many years it had a very good reputation for reliability and, even more importantly, a faultless one for safety. It’s these strengths that enable it to gain from showcasing an apparent weakness. If Guinness didn’t have great taste then no amount of surfers, white horses and philosophising could have made waiting around for a pint feel worthwhile. If Lyons Cakes didn’t taste sweet enough to feel ‘nice’, there would have been no point flaunting how ‘naughty’ they were. You have to earn the right to pratfall.

Earning the right to pratfall
For brands that are confident in their core competence though, leading with a well-chosen weakness has more value today than ever.

In his own study of the Pratfall Effect, consumer psychologist Adam Ferrier asked 626 consumers which of two cookies they found more appealing – one that was perfectly round, and another that had a rough, broken edge. The messy cookie was the overwhelming winner with 66% of people choosing it. Why? Because it appears inherently more human and hand-made. In the case of cookies, we assume that this means more authentic, less mass-produced and better tasting. The history of the Pratfall Effect in marketing suggests that we may want something similar from our relationships with brands more generally. As marketers, we can signal authenticity and reliability in the things that matter, by showing vulnerability over the things that matter less.

Marketers today operate in an era when audiences expect convenience and seamless, personalised experiences – but can often feel like their relationship to businesses is automated and inauthentic, breeding new types of frustrations. Technology delivers against our rational desire for things to be better, but not always against our emotional need for a sense of connection. Part of the role of brand marketing is to fill this gap; to make brands distinctive by the way that they make you feel. The sense of empathy that a pratfall generates can play a powerful role in helping to achieve it. As marketers, we’re trained to focus on the things that we can demonstrate our brand is great at. Now and then, it’s worth taking a moment to consider the occasions when we can be less perfect, more real – and a lot more likeable.

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