How brands can learn from Iain Banks and why weakness can be appealing

Iain Bank's career had a stuttering start: his first four novels, written over a 12-year period, were rejected by every publisher he tried.

What flaw will you admit, asks Richard Shotton
What flaw will you admit, asks Richard Shotton

In his late twenties, in desperation, he changed genre. He stopped writing science fiction in favour of more mainstream fare.

The switch paid off. His next novel, The Wasp Factory, about a psychopathic Scottish teenager, caught the attention of one of Britain’s most renowned publishers, Macmillan.

When the publisher sent out review copies the majority of critics were impressed, but some were damning.

The Sunday Express described the novel as: "A silly, gloatingly sadistic and grisly yarn of a family of Scots lunatics, one of whom tortures small creatures – a bit better written than most horror hokum but really just the literary equivalent of a video nasty."

The Times was even more caustic: "As a piece of writing, The Wasp Factory soars to the level of mediocrity. Maybe the crassly explicit language, the obscenity of the plot were thought to strike an agreeably avant-garde note. Perhaps it’s all a joke meant to fool literary London into respect for rubbish."

It was here that Banks broke with tradition. Despite his publisher’s misgivings he insisted on the negative reviews being carried on the cover alongside the positive ones.

Banks’ boldness paid off. His distinctive tactic ensured the book was noticed and the sheer outrage of many critics meant its positioning as a powerfully moving book had credibility. The publicity helped create a bestseller, while positioning him as an independent thinker.

Most brands shy away from admitting a weakness. That’s a mistake.

A famous psychological study suggests that admitting your flaws is far more effective than bragging.

The study in question was conducted by Harvard University psychologist Elliot Aronson in 1966. In his experiment, Aronson recorded an actor answering a series of quiz questions.

The actor – armed with the right responses – answers 92 per cent of the questions correctly.

After the quiz, the actor then pretends to spill a cup of coffee over himself (a small blunder, or as the Americans say, pratfall).

The recording was played to a large sample of students, who were then asked how likeable the contestant was.

However, Aronson split the students into cells and played them different versions: one with the spillage included and one without. The students found the clumsy contestant more likeable. Aronson called this insight the pratfall effect.

There are three reasons why brands should admit flaws.

First, it makes them seem more human. In an age when many prefer the authentic to the mass produced, this boosts appeal.

Second, consumers often assume that brands are less than honest. Admitting a weakness is a tangible demonstration of honesty and therefore it makes other claims more believable.

Third, everyone assumes that brands are fallible, so if a brand is open about its failings, it can persuade consumers that its weaknesses lie in inconsequential areas.

If brands pretend they’re perfect, consumers may assume that the undisclosed flaw lies in an important area.

Some of the greatest brands through history have admitted a weakness. From the slow pour of Guinness to the awful taste of Listerine. The best brands have been bold enough to revel in their flaws.

What flaw will you admit?

Richard Shotton is deputy head of evidence at Manning Gottlieb

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