Beauty in Imperfection
Marketing (and advertising) has a perfection problem. Brands are too afraid to show their vulnerabilities, but the ones that are (like Nike) are seeing their risks pay off. Amadeus Redha explains why the future of marketing is similar to a Japanese philosophy of aesthetics, and why it’s OK to be a little bit imperfect…
Marketing Manager at C Space
Amadeus Redha is Marketing Manager at C Space. He’s a gifted penman and hawk-eyed marketer who can spot a good story coming from miles away. An integral member of our global marketing team, Amadeus brings his penmanship, blue-sky thinking, and “go hard or go home” mentality in all facets of his work. After he dusts off his hands from a long day of brand building, he’ll head out to the pub, cheer for Chelsea FC, smooth talk his way into a crowd of strangers, and then head home to feed his pet tortoise: Achilles.
I recently discovered the Japanese concept called wabi-sabi. I remember exactly how I found out about it. I went into that unstoppable midnight rabbit warren of Internet browsing, foraging for all the freaks and geeks that Wikipedia had to offer. And I ended up on Jack Dorsey’s page; prior to that: Twitter; prior to that: Social Media. Again, rabbit warren.
Turns out Dorsey is obsessed with Eastern thought. And he’s fascinated by this idea of wabi-sabi — a philosophy of aesthetics that comes from Buddhist teachings, and in a nutshell, means “beauty in imperfection.ˮ Think asymmetrical bowls, worn and weathered buildings, beat-up Converses with loosely hanging soles. That kind of thing.
For some inexplicable reason, I couldn’t stop thinking about wabi-sabi (thanks a lot, Jack). I even brought that mentality to my work. I thought of all the brands, all the marketing campaigns, and all the adverts that were just a little too perfect — that felt eerily unpalatable because of their lack of humanity.
In the UK, there’s an ongoing anti-knife crime campaign called #KnifeFree that the Home Office are running. And I can’t stand it. Their films are evocative, their messaging poignant, but their OOH ad delivery … a little underwhelming. I’ve grown up in London all of my life, I’ve witnessed knife crime happen on the street where I played football as a kid. And I see the same bus stop ad with the same copy every morning on my commute to work: “Aliya has experienced the devastating effects of knife carrying. This is why she lives knife-free, just like millions of young people.ˮ
I knew girls like Aliya back in school. That ad wasn’t speaking her language. “Devastating effectsˮ aren’t relatable. Teenage pregnancy, living on benefits, hanging wet laundry on your balcony railing, peanut butter on a mouse trap — that’s relatable. It didn’t feel authentic enough. It felt contrived, and dare I say it, a little too perfect.
But I adored the imperfect, slightly off-kilter, and at times, unsettling ads. Like the #BloodNormal campaign run by feminine protection brand, Bodyform, where they ran the first-ever advert showing period blood. It’s clear that I’m a guy, so I’ll never be able to truly empathize with this advert. But I still thought it was revolutionary. Half of the world’s population have or will have experienced menstruation, so why have we gone all of our lives burying our heads in sand, almost pretending like it doesn’t exist? I say, well done Bodyform, you nailed the humanity part. You’re imperfectly perfect. You’re wabi-sabi-ing pretty damn well.
Our research shows that the stronger brands are the ones that really “getˮ their customers. In other words, they’re more human. Rather than shield the truth, they’re open, and transparent when they’ve done something wrong. Just like how KFC admitted to running out of chicken in an ironic logistics fiasco (more on that in our second In Print issue). They know who they stand for, refusing to appeal to every single person on the planet. Just like how Nike decided to feature Colin Kaepernick as the face of their new advertising campaign, two years after he famously refused to stand for the US national anthem in protest of police brutality.
We don’t form emotional bonds with Stepford Wife-esque individuals, infallible to a tee. We form bonds with the people who have the gall to put their hands up (in the case of KFC) and say, “I f*cked up. I’m sorry,ˮ or in the case of Nike, “I don’t care if you disagree with me. I’m going to stand by what I believe in.ˮ
Surely this is where all of marketing is headed? Consumer trust is already waning in the face of an ever-oblique political landscape, so what will happen in 10 years’ time? In 2028, will brands seek new avenues for growth because their sponsored posts keep getting ignored, or because their TV adverts become cringe-worthy comedy relics like a laugh track?
Tomorrow’s adverts will evoke a stranger sensibility in all of us, a sort of “What the hell did I just watch and why do I love it so much?ˮ You love it so much because it’s real. It’s human. It speaks to the awkward teenager in you that didn’t have a date for prom, or the first graze on your knee that the school nurse wrapped a bandage around in your preschool days. It makes you buy into a belief or an ideology, not a product or a service.
Our industry is hanging on the precipice of a crucial moment in history. Brands are see-sawing between that perfect balance of sincerity/perfection. Just like a seesaw, to achieve elevation on one end, you have to weigh the other end down. If you’re perfect, you’ll be perceived as insincere — undeniably bad. To be perceived as sincere, be seen as imperfect. It’s OK. Because as humans, we’re all a bit wabi-sabi.