Suckers for Imperfection

Nothing is perfect, writes David Allison – and that's for the better. There's a branding lesson behind accepting your nicks, dents, and flaws.


Nothing is perfect, writes David Allison – and that’s for the better. There’s a branding lesson behind accepting your nicks, dents, and flaws.

Wabi Sabi is a traditional Japanese term that very roughly means “nothing is perfect, and we like that.”  It’s a particularly apt concept for today. It’s a funny contradiction, in these times of incessant automation and computer-driven systems and robotic assembly lines, that some companies are finding success in letting their hair down a bit, and exorcising their inner control-freak. In fact, some new game-changing technologies demand it.

Wabi Sabi is an aesthetic belief that celebrates imperfections, and favours the handmade over the machine made. There is something quite wonderful about enjoying your morning latte or Earl Grey from a vessel that exudes the presence of its maker. In the world of interior design and industrial design this notion is very popular at the moment. There is a resurgence in small cottage industry operations making everything from shoes to chairs to paper to briefcases. Brands that have always been about craftsmanship, like the OTT expensive French luxury goods manufacturer Hermes for example, are reportedly weathering the economic tsunami better than other luxury brands. Brooks Brothers reports an uptick in custom-tailoring orders in an era when clothing sales are falling. Personally, if I take stock of all my favourite stuff, all the things that make my day a little tiny bit better, to a one these items are made by hand: a favourite bookmark, a scarf, a hand-stitched wallet.

It’s like we’re finally shaking the predilections of the industrial age, which gave rise to a fascination with all things machine made. I remember my grandmother was absolutely enthralled with plastic, because it came from a machine and was easy-to-clean and brightly coloured and impervious to the 6 kids she raised. Then the so-called information age led to our much-discussed lack of connectivity with our extended family and our neighbours and our communities. Perhaps Wabi Sabi is the next logical step. We want to see that other humans are around us. We want things to be a bit messy. We’re sick of automated perfection.

Enter the brave new world of social media, an arena where brands are required to relax, and roll with the punches. The days of micro-managing brand perceptions by micro-managing the messages are over as soon as a company crosses the social media threshold. It’s one of the biggest fears I hear from clients as we gently prod them into trying out new communication tools like Twitter, Facebook and the like. They are worried sick that if they open up their brand to millions of online conversations and comments, someone might say something mean. The cold hard truth is, if there is something mean to say, it’s already being said. You can choose to know about it, or you can choose to remain oblivious. Those are your only two choices. Stopping the mean thing from being said in the first place is not an option.

If you want real a shock, arrange for a social media audit. Smart young computer wizards can push a few buttons and show you what is being said about you online right now. It will probably make your hair stand on end. So in fact, the horse has already left the barn. You can’t control what is being said. But you can participate in the conversation, and, at least, have a chance to tell your side of the story.

And you know what? It’s all going to be OK. Brands need to realize that the rules of Wabi Sabi apply to them. A little roughness makes things human. It’s ok to let down your guard a bit. People will love you for that. It’s OK to give up some control of your brand messages, engage in meaningful dialogue, and, as a result, benefit from deeper more resonate relationships with your customers.   

In fact, The President or CEO or EVP or someone terribly important like that (I can’t find the reference now, of course. Can anyone help?) over at Procter and Gamble said recently that the thing they’ve figured out about social media is that the more they let go of control, the more successful their forays in social media become. That’s Procter and Gamble, folks. The very birthplace of obsessive-compulsive brand management. If they can loosen up, embrace the concept of Wabi Sabi, and let things get more real, we ALL can.