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Creative Brand Purpose Brand Strategy

Being vulnerable puts brands at risk, but they should do it anyway

By Matt Kissane, Global executive director

Landor

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February 8, 2023 | 8 min read

For the sake of authenticity and the ‘trust crisis’, Matt Kissane of Landor & Fitch says to brands: be more like Patagonia.

Patagonia

Patagonia and Airbnb are proof that acts of vulnerability can be character-building for brands. / Glenna Haug via Unsplash

We want to make the case for vulnerability: the most essential but underrated practice for brand-owners today. It's defined as the act of exposing yourself to the possibility of failure, criticism, or harm. Why on earth would we make a case for that?

After all, brand decisions have never been so consequential; the challenges we face – from climate change to war – are existential. And the stakes have never been higher. We live in a time where a single ill-thought-through tweet can lead to mass cancellation.

Our response has been to damage-control, cancel-proof and bubble-wrap our brands, preferring to be 100% not-wrong over a 40% chance of being oh-so right. Striving to be perfect, rather than thrilling. Despite the risks that vulnerability carries, it’s an essential practice for fostering three things brands desperately need to thrive and remain relevant: trust, creativity, and character.

Let’s start with trust

We are now entering the third decade of the trust crisis. Cynicism, scepticism, desperation and rage abound. Brands have tried to overcome declining trust by leaning into authenticity (showing who they ‘really’ are) and integrity (standing up for what they ‘really’ believe in), but the needle has barely moved.

Why? Because many brands sanitize and perfect their ‘authentic’, ‘integrity-filled’ identities by eliminating words like not and never from brand vocabularies; by engaging in cancel-proofing exercises; by showing up at Pride and Black History Month, not in the spirit of true allyship, but for fear of being seen to not be involved. And we wonder why people find it hard to trust?

To build trust, brands need to lean into the power of vulnerability – the willingness to expose themselves to risk for the sake of who they say they are, and what they say they believe. Boldly showing their imperfect attempts to try will resonate in a way that authenticity campaigns and tokenism never will.

This year maybe don’t bandwagon say, Pride season, if you have little reason to be there; come clean about your decision, and the steps you’re taking to address it (that looks a lot more like authentic allyship than any offhanded rainbow logo ever could).

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Onto creativity

We know we need to invent our way out of a crisis. But creativity is the most terrifying, vulnerable act there is. Coming up with something new or unorthodox and waiting with bated breath to see whether you’re shut down, shut up, or kicked out of the room? No, no. Best to play it safe.

And so, the crutches (interminable PPTs, reems of research, RACI matrices, notes of what was approved at the last meeting) designed to soften the blow of crazy and unthinkable come out and take up more and more room in our lives.

Maybe with more vulnerability in boardrooms, the world would be a lot more resilient. Maybe if we faced our fears and made very scary and very deliberate leaps of faith, we’d see more Patagonia-esque attempts to reinvent shareholder value, or Airbnb-style bets on the future of work.

This year, practice leaping more. For every safe idea that’s shared in a meeting, throw in a wild, ‘unthinkable’ one. Don’t justify or explain. Set it free. Let it out the world; you never know, you might just speak the next Patagonia into existence.

And finally, character

Brands are built on differentiation, and that differentiation is what drives growth. And yet the default setting of many branding professionals is to shy away from the moments that we, as humans, consider character-building.

When you’re chucked into the deep-end. When you’re bombing on stage. When you tell someone you love them. Character is forged in adversity, and in facing up it head-on – look at Apple in the 90s, look at Ukraine now. And we wonder why many brands are bland and lack personality?

The character of a brand will increasingly be defined by its weaknesses, its multiple dimensions (good and bad), because that’s what helps us connect in a uniquely human way.

Embrace imperfection

This year, embrace adversity, talk about imperfection. When the tech fails, or there’s a mistake or a delay, don’t whitewash it out of your brand’s story. Brands are just a collection of humans, trying to do their best for their customers. We’re all human, and we know the struggle is real.

Do we think Levi’s didn’t feel a pang of vulnerability just before it leaped into encouraging consumers to buy less of its product? Or when Coinbase splashed its Superbowl cash on nothing but a QR code?

There is a reason we all know and revere these examples. Because vulnerability; leaping deliberately into the unknown, has super-charged their relevance in ways that playing it safe could never do. So, really, the question is: are you ready to embrace vulnerability as your brand’s superpower?

Creative Brand Purpose Brand Strategy

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