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Unconventional Wisdom Three: If it ain’t broke, why not?


Unconventional Wisdom Three: If it ain’t broke, why not?


If you’re trying to improve your brands and products, you may be moving in the wrong direction. Dane Smith says it’s time to get ugly. Here’s why.

This is part three of Unconventional Wisdom – a marketer’s guide to bad economic decisions that make great psychological sense. Check out part one and part two » 


Dane Smith 150 BWOne of the troubling legacies from traditional economics in modern business thinking is a two-dimensional view of ‘utility’.

Utility theory suggests that individuals have fixed preferences for things, regardless of the time and context in which they make a decision. It holds humans up as rational ‘optimisers’ – a careful breed who assign special values to their choices and make selections on the basis of what will provide them with maximum utility. Soft drink X has a taste enjoyment score of eight, making it my immediate preference over soft drink Y, with its measly taste enjoyment score of six.

When laid out like that, it probably feels like quite an odd way of thinking (humans are pretty irrational, duh). And yet, when brands are looking to improve their products and services, they still spend a huge chunk of time thinking through the lens of maximum utility, not psychology.

Imagine you are Listerine in 1966. For the better part of a century, your product has defined the mouthwash category – facing little-to-no competition and reaping all the profits. Out of seemingly nowhere, Proctor & Gamble shirt-fronts you with its new, cutting-edge mouthwash revelation: Scope.

To make matters worse, this new mouthwash tastes much, much better than yours.

Flash forward to the aftermath of a (hypothetical) emergency focus group. The consumer opinion is unanimous: people demand that you make Listerine taste better. Perhaps even release it in cool confectionary flavours like cherry or cola.

What do you do?


Stay gross

Instead of caving to this ‘utility’ reflex, Listerine decided to play in the realm of psychology. It marketed a unique benefit to bad taste: “If it tastes that bad, it has to kill a lot of germs”. Listerine still dominates the mouthwash market to this day.


Herein lies the truth about consumer preferences: they are very dependent on context and time. Bad taste is probably bad for snacks but it’s fantastic for medicine. It makes the remedy feel harder-working.

This psychological bit of trickery called the taste-efficacy heuristic, is the same way Red Bull thrives in a very cluttered category. It is not in spite of its awful taste that it succeeds, but because of it. Perhaps probiotics and analgesic brands should stop claiming they’re more efficacious, and start tasting like it.

While this finding might cause economic modelling headaches for brands (and the marketers that service them), it is a very promising thing indeed. It frees us to shape more distinctive brands and services that can compete as much on their unique differences than a set criteria of satisfaction.


Act shabby

High-production values, slick packaging, generosity and clean shopfronts are all worthy items for a brand checklist. But what about the times when it pays to feel a bit cheap?

Take budget airlines. While they’re a very desirable travel option now, these businesses had to first shape consumer expectations of what lay inside and outside the scope of this unseen ‘budget’. After all, when you’re picking a metal cage to hurtle you through the air at 40,000 feet, paying a premium for safety probably feels fine.

Enter psychology.

People are amateur game theorists. When we see ‘unbeatable value’, we suspiciously sniff out the compromise. Cheap strawberries sound dangerous. A pick-your-own strawberry discount on the other hand provides a ‘scapegoat’ for this suss-factor – or, a value payoff – preserving associations of both valuable and fresh.

So, to avoid people reading into ‘budget’ as ’budget pilots’ or ‘budget aircraft parts’, these airlines usually make customers pay for everything above the essential experience – from entertainment to every single Pringle or drop of Wolf Blass.

Similarly, Aldi does not want you thinking its copycat brands are cheap because they’re chock-full of preservatives or mediocre tastes, but because they abstain from over-the-top store fit-outs and tidiness. In this sense, linoleum and hastily stacked pallets actually triumph over expensive pine and careful shelf arrangements.


Embrace ugly

One word: Crocs.

Unveiled in 2002, the infamous foam clogs went on to enjoy explosive global demand throughout the mid-2000s, taking $847 million in revenue in 2007. Its tremendous sales seemed to be matched only by its public revulsion. One renowned fashion consultant referred to the shoe as ‘a plastic hoof’, while Time magazine included Crocs in its 50 Worst Inventions list.

As if bashful, Crocs spent years branching off into lots of new and much less offensive parts of the apparel and footwear markets (including high-end women’s fashion!)

In 2009, the brand landed itself on the edge of bankruptcy, with mountains of unwanted stock. Under new management, Crocs double downed on ugly. Laser-focusing its efforts back on the classic (and much maligned) foam clog, the brand engineered a quick turnaround – enjoying consecutive annual sales in excess of $1 billion.

What’s going on here? From a purely rational standpoint of course, better aesthetics equals greater appeal. But psychologically speaking, there is a lot to be said for ugly. For one, it is salient. It stands out from the clutter by automatically demanding attention (a hard-won currency) from its audience. By extension – and possibly more interestingly still – it is uniquely capable of acting as a signal.

Signalling theory shows that we often buy things not for their unique intrinsic properties (or some kind of expected utility quotient), but for what those things say about us. Wearing Lululemon may signal to others that you’re fit. Carrying a Keep Cup may signal to others you care. Soapboxing the superiority of Androids over iPhones may signal to others that you’re smart (or at least, heavily-opinionated).

Notice anything in-common? Powerful signals tend to be conspicuous – the louder the better. Toms’ shoes – known for its buy-a-shoe, gift-a-shoe model – are incidentally, pretty ugly. Using heavy branding (even on its high heels) and a distinctive ‘rustic’ style, they are eye-catching proof of wearer charitability.

The Toyota Prius – long-dominator of the hybrid car market – is unmistakable on the road. This time, its patent ugliness is a demonstration of green-friendly values.

In short: consider how ugly design elements can strengthen your brand’s signals. Crocs are more appealing when they look like you don’t care what other people think.


In summary

If it ain’t broke, try breaking it! A little.

Next time a focus group demands you enhance your product or service – making it taste, look, function or feel ‘better‘ – consider the alternatives. There are plenty of psychological ‘sweet-spots’ hiding away in the much less-cluttered space of imperfection.


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