The Vulnerable Brand



Stand-up comedians are fascinating. They get up on a stage, in front of thousands of people, and they can grip each one of them in the palm of their hands, just by talking into a microphone. With their stories and jokes, they are able to control the crowds for an hour or more.

How do they do it?


If you peel away the layers, you will see the way they make a connection with their audience by talking about the imperfections in their own lives. They are brave enough to embarrass themselves or to be shown as anti-heroes. And this creates empathy and understanding. The audience nods and laughs along, because, in their inner sanctum, they are able to recognise themselves as not always being the best or the strongest. They find refuge in this universal condition.


Self-deprecation not only creates connection, it is also a sign of superior psychological well-being. This fact was recently confirmed in a study by researchers from the Mind, Brain and Behaviour Research Centre. Jorge Torres Marín, one of the researchers behind this project, says, “In particular, we have observed that a greater tendency to employ self-deprecating humour is indicative of high scores in psychological well-being dimensions such as happiness and, to a lesser extent, sociability.”

This further proves that individuals, like stand-up comedians, who use this kind of humour can create connection and display signs of happiness and confidence by showing their vulnerability.


The Vulnerable Brand

If we think of brand personalities as real human beings, and we should, what are the implications for how our brands should communicate to create stronger connections with their audiences?

Turn weakness into strength

One way to show vulnerability and create an authentic connection, is to turn a brand’s perceived weakness into strength. A great example of this happened in the car rental category during the 60s. Hertz was the undeniable leader, always followed by Avis in second place. So in 1962 Doyle Dane Bernbach developed a new positioning that simply stated:

Avis. We try harder.

Everyone instantly understood this. When you’re not the number one you have to try harder in everything to be competitive. Ordinary people could recognise the underdog spirit within themselves and therefore build a connection with Avis.

Turn crisis into opportunity

When KFC, the fried chicken fast food chain, faced widespread closure of their stores in the UK due to a chicken shortage, their agency, Mother in London, developed a newspaper ad that turned the looming crisis into an opportunity.

Instead of a long apology that nobody would be interested in reading, they simply showed the familiar KFC bucket … but with one difference. The famous three letters of the brand were jumbled to spell FCK. Anyone who read that instantly smiled. Here was a brand that felt embarrassed enough to change their logo for the sake of an apology, and display this embarrassment in very human language. People all make mistakes, and brands are driven by people. So with this brilliant ad, the brand was able to show its humanity.

Not just did they avert inflicting damage to their brand, they gained more goodwill towards KFC.

Turn the convention on its head

Brands like to associate themselves with celebrities in order to appear cool. Many people can see through this strategy. They understand that famous people are paid to extoll the values of the brand that’s writing the cheques, so they take celebrity endorsement with a pinch of salt. Sprite, the soda drink, featured LeBron James in an ad in which he said: “I would never tell you to drink Sprite, even if I was in a Sprite commercial, which I am.”

By poking fun at themselves and their own category and its conventions, Sprite instantly took a leadership position.

The brand’s rule of thumb

If we think of brands as people, it becomes easier to see how powerful brands can become if they communicate in a more vulnerable ways. Imagine going to a dinner and there is one guest who is constantly boasting about how smart or strong he is. Very soon nobody would be interested in listening to this showboat and he would find himself isolated and alone.

If brands keep banging on about amazing they are, they risk the same isolation.

Brands and people who are not afraid to embrace their own vulnerabilities, weaknesses and crisis, all stand to gain from their honesty and through the power of the connections they can make.

Brands should look to a person at the table who can simply and honestly talk about their own failures. Who can look themselves in the mirror and laugh. Brands should emulate the vulnerability and perhaps then, they too can grip audiences with whatever they have to communicate.


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