Ugly As A Brand Strategy

September 17, 2015 / BRANDS ARE LIKE PEOPLE

Ugly As A Brand Strategy

September 17, 2015

Alf Rehn Author, Professor

Alf Rehn is a writer, a professor of management, a ginthusiast, a keynote speaker, a fan of Ethel Merman and a strategic advisor, although not necessarily in that order. He can be stalked at www.alfrehn.com.

Last week while shopping for groceries, I came across some Froosh. If you’ve never heard about them, shame. They’re a Nordic brand of fruit smoothies, emphasizing good ingredients and doing good in general. What drew me to their product this time was not their approach to ecological framing, but a curiously green spinach and coconut smoothie, adorned with the unabashed tagline “Ugly But Lovable”. Now, that’s just wonderful. Not only wonderful, but important for business thinking.

Ugly is not only potentially lovable, it can even be a strategy. This might surprise some, particularly in the brand world. We’re often taught to go for the slick, the beautiful, the cool typeface and the modern design. Ugly and clunky are pejoratives pure and simple, to be avoided and airbrushed away. Most managers are scared of creating things that aren’t perfect, and as a result we have a world filled with beautiful, but soulless, products and meaningless branding. 

Even in branding there’s an uncanny valley. You may not know what that is––the term comes to us from robotics and the art of building androids. The gist of the notion is that when building human-like robots, there is a problematic between the droids from Star Wars (all jerky movements and metallic voices) and the ideal android that’s indistinguishable from an actual human being––you know, like those sexbots that inhabit the fever dreams of pornographers. This space, where robots and androids remind us of humans but still manage to look creepy, scary and not-quite-right, is called the uncanny valley. Here, the more perfect an android becomes, the creepier it is. Perfect skin, perfect proportions, perfect everything, but lacks soul, humanity and those flaws that make humans human. It is uncanny, and your brand might be as well.

We humans are very good at picking up on the details. We pick up on patterns, and can recognize when straplines are created by an algorithm simply because they’re too perfect. We pick up on the seeming lack of flaws, and recognize this as inauthentic. We pick up on just how unlovable the sanitized-for-your-protection products can be, and instead, we look for slight imperfections and idiosyncrasies in order to feel for something, to find a reason to emote.

In France, one can say of a person that he or she is jolie laid(e), ugly-beautiful. This is used about people who might not have a perfect supermodel look, but whose somewhat odd assemblage of facial features can be beautiful in their own way––consider Benedict Cumberbatch, or Frida Kahlo. For most of us, this represents something more interesting than the perfectly chiseled, but ultimately soulless, visage known from bland advertisements––and why wouldn’t the same go for products, services, and even companies?

It is easy to point to the more obvious cases of jolie laid(e) in branding. For instance, one can look at cases from fashion such as Uggs, Crocs or a particularly garish Versace print. Or look at the way in which some cars or tools become iconic and beloved despite their slightly odd look, such as the Volkswagen Van or the Bic Cristal pen. But for a more incisive and modern example, consider Airbnb. For some, this example may need some explanation, as the Airbnb platform is anything but ugly. On the contrary, it is slick and almost invisible in its considerate user interface and experience. What people haven’t commented as much on is that it has to be so for a reason, for the offering is something far more complex.

When you book a normal hotel room, you know what you’re getting. Unless you stay in the cheapest of the cheap and compare with the highest of the high, most hotels look similar. Their colors are inoffensive, their art bought in bulk. Sure, there might be a signature piece in the lobby, but for all except hotel nerds, the average hotel room is similar to any other average hotel room. Not so with Airbnb. You can end up in a loft with weird art, a houseboat, or a cramped little studio with just a hint of depression. But this is not a flaw in Airbnb’s brand strategy, it is the very genius of it. We love Airbnb because it feels human rather than uncanny, and even the less attractive offerings become ugly but loveable. The company has utilized the imperfections of the world, given them a context in which they too can be lovely, even beautiful, and allowed users to connect on an emotional level. So the questions to modern managers are:

“Is your brand lovable or uncanny?

Are your products jolie laid(e) or perfectly soulless?”

 We are rarely taught to think in terms of the imperfect, or the slightly ugly––but we should. The ugly, in its own way, is a sign of authenticity and of being connected to the real world. There is humanity in the ugly, the not quite symmetrical, being the odd one out. What we need, then, is to think less of how we can hunt for the cool stuff, and think more about how a brand, a product, or even a company, can use the imperfections of the world, the slight ticks and idiosyncrasies, to keep themselves out of the uncanny valley.

In an age where technology becomes cheaper and copying ever easier, a manager needs to become an “imperfectionist”—someone who thinks more about soul than about shine, who looks more for the charmingly lovable oddity than for the latest legitimized look––someone who keeps things ugly but lovable.

Alf Rehn Author, Professor

Alf Rehn is a writer, a professor of management, a ginthusiast, a keynote speaker, a fan of Ethel Merman and a strategic advisor, although not necessarily in that order. He can be stalked at www.alfrehn.com.

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