Don’t Hide — Mine Your Brand’s Flaws for Storytelling Gold

Your brand is flawed.

It doesn’t matter who you are or what your company does. The character of your brand is flawed. Brands behave badly in major and minor ways. Even the most well-intentioned brand efforts go awry. 

Elon Musk has arguably purposely acted out to devalue X’s brand value. Bud Light had a bad brand year in 2023 with a flawed marketing campaign. Even innovative startup OpenAI unintentionally created a brand issue after firing and re-hiring its CEO and co-founder Sam Altman.

Of course, brand character mistakes also happen in smaller and much less catastrophic ways. At least one email probably sits in your inbox from a company addressed to <NAME> or that tries to sell you something you already purchased from the brand.

As marketers, you hope to avoid these situations. But here’s the thing: Companies, organizations, and brands are made up of people. People make mistakes, and people do bad things. Every one of your brands will falter at some point.

However, in all these situations lies a lesson for your role as a brand storyteller.

Understanding your brand’s flaws

Stephen R. Covey, author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, once wrote, “We judge ourselves by our motives and others by their behavior.” As humans, you continue making this fundamental attribution error when perceiving your actions vs. others’ actions.

You usually know the clear intentions behind your own actions, but guilt can make you double down when someone calls out your response. You know it was an accident when you cut off that car. But when that driver roars along beside your vehicle, flips the bird, and screams from inside their car, you double down and flip them the bird, shouting, “Oh shut up. I didn’t do it on purpose!”

You know you worked hard on that email campaign for customer enablement. But when it goes out prematurely with a mistake and you cynically get called out on social media, you react poorly, further inflaming the mistake.

Bud Light’s campaign featuring Dylan Mulvaney is a perfect example. As I’ve written, the beer brand’s biggest mistake was not the campaign but its response to the backlash and, more importantly, its lack of preparation for the backlash.

Identifying flaws’ potential in your brand stories

When things go wrong, you most likely blame the situation and remind yourself of your intentions. But your perception of other people’s — and other brands’ — behavior is different. You don’t know their intentions. Even if they express them, you may ignore them. You most likely interpret their behavior as a flaw in their character.

As marketers, recognizing this tendency to judgmental responses provides an important lesson.  It makes a strong case for a more expansive approach to brand storytelling than just talking about your products or services.

Historically, brand messaging architectures must be idealized, perfect, and unassailable — a passionate voice striking an ideal chord in an imperfect world. Your brand is the solution to all that ails. You develop reasons for that belief, a focus, and a value.

You pay little or no attention to exposing weaknesses and flaws.

But you should. Every great hero has flaws. It’s what makes their strengths and story so relatable.  Luke Skywalker has a dark side. Barbie initially lacks self-awareness. Even George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life — the perfect father, brother, and friend — has self-worth issues.

In storytelling, the hero’s flaw lays the foundation of the story’s conflict and compels audiences to engage. Then, isn’t it ironic that you, as marketers, want your brand story to be so uneventful and free of conflict when you know that could never be?

Embracing imperfection

As 2024 unfolds, businesses must lean hard into their human-centered brand story. The disruption of generative AI and noise in the marketplace should compel you to create more human content that differentiates through brand storytelling.

Leaning into brand content inherently implies you must get outside the comfort of “safe” brand messaging and take bigger leaps into thought leadership, engaging stories, and purpose-driven content. You must take a greater chance of misinterpretation, mistakes, or plain ol’ riskier content.

Last year, I shared point-of-view message architecture. In the intervening months, I’ve worked with more clients to help them think through how much and where they align, not only on the brand messaging elements but all the things the brand believes.

A core element of that architecture requires recognition that each point of view includes “resistances.” These are not just the negative or opposition of the benefits or values. These resistances acknowledge the flaws in this point of view.

We helped a global consulting firm develop a point-of-view architecture around the future of cloud computing as tech infrastructure. The point of view and brand story were consistent across their business units. One resistance materialized because they struggled to live up to that idealized infrastructure. But once acknowledged, we could address it.

We didn’t highlight this flaw in the messaging. Just because the brand was flawed in living the ideal didn’t mean they couldn’t believe and promote it. However, recognizing the flaw did lead the firm to prepare a consistent, cohesive, and aligned response should they ever get called out on the flaw.

As a marketer, you are the perfect candidate to hold your brand’s flawed character. You must have the strength, courage, and developed muscle to communicate your intentions to live up to your brand’s ideals. And you must also accept that you never fully will.

It’s your story. Tell it well.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

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