The aspiration drive that has dominated how marketers think and what they strive to achieve in building a brand’s mythology is increasingly being seen by consumers as unattainable and fake. Buyers are drawing a line under what they perceive to be airbrushed brands. And the push-back is manifest in everything from the acceptance of imperfect food to the increased use of plus-size models on fashion house runways.
The success of the Dove campaigns and brands like Aerie point to just how aware female consumers are of what they see as ridiculous perfectionism. Buyers’ response – to endorse and buy brands that portray women in a (more) realistic way. This trend, powered initially by millennials but gaining wider market acceptance, points to a clear opportunity to introduce a refreshing reality. Among the findings in a 2014 JWT study, people increasingly value things that aren’t machine-made, they find beauty in people’s flaws and they believe those flaws make them authentic.
As Brad Hanna observed, “Mega brands that pump out product on a mass production line feel over-engineered and over-processed…Imperfections are the next chapter in the transparency movement brands must adhere to in order to connect with their consumers and establish trust and credibility…Honesty has become the new standard, whether actual honesty or simply perceived honesty.”
If you’re an editor or a retoucher, don’t panic. There’s no suggestion that consumers want everything en flagrante. But what they do seem to be saying, and what brands must increasingly get their heads around, is that they don’t want more wallpaper, more stock images, more idealistic cameos or clichéd close-ups. They want characters that are human, products that feel more individualized and messages that speak more directly and more honestly. I agree with Kelli Law, that “The days of hyper-polished singular messages are giving way to brands that understand the importance of showing their rough edges to lend humanity to their company.”
Less spin. More sin. Or at least more ways of being and talking and interacting that people relate to as closer to, and more reflective of, their worlds – specifically in those areas of our lives where imperfect is charming.
There are exceptions of course, and they are important because they illustrate a fascinating dichotomy. No-one wants their technology brands to be less than wonderful. Travelers still want first class and five star to feel, and to be positioned as, an (unusual) experiential treat. No-one wants their luxury brands to be too accessible or for their favorite celebrity chef’s restaurant to start serving meals they could have cooked themselves. But consumers do want their everyday brands to feel much more everyday, to be more reflective of their reality.
In one sense, this is democratization – a push by brands towards an increased sense of common ground and purpose between them and the people who buy from them. Nothing wrong with that. Inclusion and diversity are burgeoning social factors. But I also think the push against airbrushed is simpler and in some ways more aesthetic than that. The interest is in things that are interesting – and unpredictably so. And in a world where we have access to so many visual cues, it makes sense for brands to push their boundaries in the bid to include and celebrate people and situations that have been overlooked, or just plain denied, for too long.
A world of stories is tiring of the same old stories and scenarios. I’m stimulated by that – by the need to look beyond the perfectly lit shot for ideas and messages that are intriguing because people really identify with them. Are we at a point where this is commonplace? No. But we have passed the point where perfection is the only option. Human is in. The real challenge for brands going forward I believe will be in how they stay that human and that interesting without resorting to novelty. How honest are they prepared to be? How truthful can they afford to be – and not be? To what extent do consumers want to see what they already know – or are they just saying that? Let’s wait and see.
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