3 Mistakes You Should Make to Humanize Your Brand

Business literature is replete with mistakes brands should avoid. But what if mistakes are actually good for creating a stronger bond with customers?

Credit: Getty Images

By Tim Leberecht, Founder and Host of the House of Beautiful Business; Founder, The Business Romantic Society; Author of “The Business Romantic”

During a recent trip to Lisbon, I learned from local musicians that Fado, the traditional, melancholy Portuguese music, is a musical genre that cannot be automated by machines. Why? Fado is a collection of minor mistakes and small imperfections made by the musicians. Because there are no drums, the rhythm is mostly dictated by the singer, and the beat is unsteady, trembling, and volatile. These imperfections give the music a distinctive aura of vulnerability and heartache.

Sports are also made up of decisive mistakes; they are the main catalyst of action. Referee mistakes, in particular, often lead to heated arguments. The recent introduction of video-evidence technology in some of Europe’s soccer leagues has shown how boring it will be once every decision is technically correct and no longer subject to potentially erroneous human interpretation. What’s the point of attending a game if we can’t argue anymore?

Both Fado and sports touch us because they are human in their imperfection.

That argument sounds like the complete opposite of common business wisdom, which heralds flawless delivery and praises constant striving for perfection as key tenets of customer retention and overall success.

Sure, it is now commonplace that experience trumps price and other factors when it comes to brand loyalty. Take for instance an Aberdeen Group study which states companies with a strong customer experience (CX) retain 89% of customers versus 33% retained by low CX companies. Moreover, according to Forrester, 72% of businesses say that improving the customer experience is their top priority.

But is it true that a strong customer experience means convenience and seamless delivery?

In a time of pervasive automation, personalized but anonymous interactions, and an overall Amazonization of the online experience, mistakes can make a brand appear more human — and being human is increasingly a crucial differentiator when competitors emphasize efficiency and expediency at any cost. Seamless experiences may be appropriate for low-involvement products or services, but brands requiring high involvement may want to consider incorporating mistakes — bugs, flaws, and errors — as an integral, intentional part of their customer experience.

To do so, however, they must discern beneficial mistakes from those they should absolutely avoid. Not all mistakes automatically lead to higher customer attachment; surely you don’t want a pilot to make a fatal mistake in the cockpit. The following questions might be helpful:

  • Is the mistake significant enough to be noticeable and present a burden, but not grave enough to potentially cause any lasting harm or damage?
  • Was the intent non-malicious?
  • Is the mistake directly affiliated with the brand so that the brand can take responsibility?
  • Can the mistake be corrected and easily, or relatively quickly, be fixed by humans representing the brand?

Based on these criteria, here are three types of intentional mistakes you should make to humanize your brand and create strong customer attachment:

1. Add friction to your customer experience

When I was in grad school in LA, I drove a pre-owned Jaguar which spent more time with the mechanic than on the freeway. I loved the car’s style and driving experience — when it actually was drivable (on a good day it could go both forward and in reverse) — but my commitment to the car was a one-sided affair. Frustration was part of the equation. Unlike airline loyalty programs or platforms such as Facebook that seduce and retain you through legacy or network effects, the attachment to my Jaguar was born out of pure emotion: attachment-at-will instead of manipulated loyalty. The car’s fickleness was partly what made it so attractive — never knowing if I’d make it from downtown to Venice added an element of adventure.

Or take IKEA: Anyone who has ever tried to assemble a BILLY bookcase knows that holes that don’t line up quite right can be a cause for despair and even anger — it is part of IKEA’s brand folklore. Researchers speak of the “IKEA effect,” indicating that the labor of love creates a strong draw to a brand: the greater the effort, the greater the attachment. Apple knows a thing or two about this as well, and it has excelled at sacrificing convenience for friction (such as removing headphone jacks or foregoing standard USB ports) for the sake of rigid design aesthetics and unconditional affection.

2. Make sure your customers get in touch with customer support

A 2010 study found that product recalls can in fact foster brand attachment when they are handled well by the affected companies. Another more recent study found that customers who had to contact customer support to resolve a product or service issue and were successfully helped report a stronger bond to the company than those who had a flawless experience without any challenges. Customers who encounter positive social customer care experiences were nearly three times more likely to recommend a brand.

I recently called Etihad Airways’ customer service line after my entire transcontinental itinerary was in jeopardy due to a canceled connection, and the airline’s service agent handled it with great diligence and a deft personal touch. It was a positive impression that will outlast the efficacy of the online booking process because it appeared to be a gift, not a transaction.

3. Design AI that makes human errors

If mistakes can make brands appear more human, and human-centered customer experiences are indeed the new battlefield, then this also applies to AI-based interactions, in particular intelligent digital assistants. To win Go, the world’s most complex game, against the reigning human world champion, AlphaGo’s engineers built an AI that makes human errors. IBM is said to be working on making chatbots moody (for example, by programming AI to be on sick leave or to appear sad). And Electronic Arts engineers a certain degree of human error into the refereeing decisions in its NFL game Madden. To understand why, ask yourself: What engages you more, the AI that posts a message on your birthday one minute after midnight or the AI that emails you a day later to apologize for forgetting it?

Whether its product bugs or adding friction, whether it’s interactions with humans or AI: ignorance and arrogance will never fare well, but minor mistakes — small, deliberate cracks in your brand experience — can humanize your brand and forge a stronger bond with your customers. Satisfaction is a one-off. Loyalty is fickle. To achieve lasting attachment, being imperfect makes you perfect.

First published at Inc.com

Tim is hosting the House of Beautiful Business taking place in Lisbon, November 3–10th, 2017. Alongside fellow start-up founders, executives, nonprofit leaders, investors, writers, philosophers, scientists, designers, technologists, artists, we will be discussing and prototyping how to lead with purpose and passion; how to build human companies and workplaces; and how to design for deeper connections in an age of exponential change and massive societal disruption.

Hosted in collaboration with the BCG Henderson Institute, the House will serve as salon, stage, and sandbox for people who are keen on rehumanizing business and exploring meaningful conversations around humanity and technology. You can find more information and buy tickets at: houseofbeautiful.biz