Brands and branding can be hypocritical.

This is not news, but what is news is the shift in the areas in which these hypocrisies flourish. Imperfection, ironically, is one of these areas.

The brand world used to be all about the perfect. Tone was corporate or expert, things were tidy, big gestures were controlled from the center. Times have changed, and hypocrisies are changing with them. Because for all our talk of authenticity, embracing the imperfect, and seeing through the empty perfections of ‘insta-world’ – the way we’re working with imperfectionist thinking has its own tyrannies. These are tyrannies of monotony, positivity, and process, and they are keeping brand strategy from being its best self (see, it’s catching).

Forget the perfect 10: imperfection at its best sets creativity free

We’ll start in the world of soaring flips and glittering leotards. The way gymnastics is scored has changed with the times (hopefully, its history of abuse will change too, but that’s a topic for another day). The sport used to be about scoring the “perfect 10”, a feat rarely achieved by a famous few, including Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton. In 2006, the sport moved to a new Code of Points, which is predicated on the idea that, while perfection is technically possible, it won’t ever actually be achieved.

This Code of Points is freedom and tyranny, wrapped into one, and it’s a blueprint worth exploring for the future of brands. A gymnast steps up to the apparatus and smiles in the full knowledge that her performance will be nit-picked within an inch of its life, and as close as she gets to perfection, there is no ceiling on what perfection can be. In this way, every performance is doomed to a ‘could do better’ report card, which can be extremely difficult for an individual athlete to deal with.

Yet, there’s a flipside. The lack of a ceiling keeps creativity high, with gymnasts finding ways to invent new moves or put them together in different ways, because that is the way to keep interpreting and reinventing the code.

Imperfection brings its own tyrannies

Built-in imperfection guarantees gymnastics a future, because it ensures that both the athlete and the sport itself are forced into perpetual innovation.

When perfection is unattainable, that is a form of release.

So, imperfection can keep us on the path to creativity, innovation, and reimagining our world. All of which sounds perfect for brands, doesn’t it?

But in the absence of a Code of Points, our interpretation of imperfection is, well, imperfect.

We try to make even imperfection relentlessly positive

The Japanese concept of wabi-sabi reminds us to see the poetry in imperfection, that rough edges are an authentic part of what it is to be human. Somehow, it has lost that depth and become shorthand for a surface-level interpretation of authenticity, for an imperfection that must be solved out by positive thinking. Yet, in its true translation, wabi-sabi has a more complex (yet deeper) human meaning. As Richard Powell expresses it, “Wabi-sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.”

Relentless positivity, even when it is used in an expression of imperfection, translates into missed opportunity for brands. It’s also a growing problem as we position an increasing number of brands as activist brands, or at least as purpose-driven brands. This kind of positioning, and the comms that come with it, see brands trying to wrestle with what really matters, the stuff of life and of the human condition: It’s when we sacrifice that to a purely positive outlook that we end up with a purpose parade. It makes communications glib and encourages us to reflect emotions rather than provoke them, which leads us to the montage rather than the visceral.

Oliver Burkeman’s work around The Power of Negative Thinking digs deep into the benefits that negativity can have. In one conversation with an end-of-life carer, Burkeman raises the absolute power of being present in the way the dying person requires. Our industry obsession with positivity means brands end up engineering moments of imperfection that are designed to lead to getting to a ‘better self’, rather than brands being authentically present with people in their moment.

Embracing the alter-ego

But for brands, as for people, it’s the tension between perfection and imperfection that counts. Brands are very good at telling people, particularly women, to embrace imperfections, often to then offer to help design them out. Brands are much less keen to allow an alter-ego, and embrace their own. When brands do take on imperfections by acknowledging and changing their own, the results can be extremely powerful. Take Betty Crocker’s recent The Kitchen is for Everyone work in the Middle East. After a ten-year-old boy tweeted about the gender-specific language used in the instructions on packs, the company considered its approach, rewrote the instructions, and invested in changing packaging to create equality in the perceptions of who is cooking.

Brands’ perfect future is one of nuance, of really taking the rough with the smooth, and in letting some of the power of negative thinking help us, there’s progress.

As Brandingmag reached its 10th anniversary this year, we’re putting together an original series that envisions a perfect future for branding. Ten articles will explore ten different sides of branding, each one through the eyes of an expert on the subject. Join our celebration and stay tuned for the next installment in the “Branding’s Perfect 10” series.

Previously: Darren Evans on design
(Branding’s Perfect 10 – The Future of Brand)

Next: Noah Lekas on ethics
(Branding’s Perfect 10 – Less Branding)

Cover image source: Motoki Tonn