One of my favorite reads (albeit not in the brand strategy genre) is the Book of Heroic Failures by Stephen Pile, founder of the Not Terribly Good Club of Great Britain.

The book, now in its third edition (a runaway success, it seems – not great if Mr. Pile is interested in living the brand) documents people who are brilliant at being abysmal.

As Pile says “It is a grave misreading of the human predicament to think that everything will be a success. Sanity and happiness come from embracing catastrophe and applauding it.”

Which brings me to the worrying subject that inspired this post – our growing cultural need to never be seen as failures.

It was a James Altucher podcast with media entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk that snapped me to attention. Vaynerchuk was spitting mad at the legions of self-help gurus who ran commercials showing hundreds of thousands of dollars on their kitchen table, a Ferrari in the garage, and the promise that they could help you, Joe Q Public, achieve the same results.

As Vaynerchuk said, these commercials were disturbing for three reasons:

  • They were lies – generally the Ferrari was rented, the fortune borrowed, and the advice dished out by someone who had no real-world experience to back their advice;
  • They propagated the myth that success should come effortlessly, and quickly;
  • They painted over the disturbing realities facing most risk-taking entrepreneurs – 97% business failure rates and, according to a number of studies, an inordinately high rate of suicide, depression and mental illness (49% of silicon valley founders were diagnosed with depression vs 7% among the general population).

CONGRATULATIONS, YOU FUCKED UP

I work primarily with tech companies. And tech is probably the worst offender when it comes to the myth of overnight, effortless success.

Which was why I sat down last week to interview Jim Hayhurst, CEO of Pretio Interactive, and co-founder of Fuckup Nights Victoria.

Hayhurst borrowed the Fuckup idea from a group of tech entrepreneurs in Mexico who felt the need to reinstate sanity in their world. The format of the evening was simple – three local tech stars take the stage to present – in the most unvarnished, painfully honest terms – how they fucked up again and again on their road to success.

The event in Mexico proved wildly popular, and has since spread to many cities around the world.

It isn’t hard to see why. First, it’s cathartic. It also provides valuable reassurance to startup founders that their trials and tribulations are entirely normal. And finally, it teaches us to learn from our mistakes, instead of pursuing the insanity of failing fast / forward.

As Hayhurst said “Just as bad as the myth of instant success is the bastardized myth of failing forward. Failing forward was originally all about failing, learning from your failure, adjusting, and incorporating your learnings into your business. But it has come to mean failing without learning, only to fail, fail fail again.”

Hayhurst is quick to add that the myth of instant success is pervasive throughout our society, not just in the tech sector. “Thanks to social media, we’re inundated with images of people who are better looking, happier, more successful than us. If I’m 13 years old and I don’t have as many likes as another kid, I’m devastated. Either I get depressed, or I turn to more and more outlandish ways of getting myself noticed.” We’re living in a world of reality stars who achieved dizzying success by simply debasing themselves into the spotlight. Talent seems a trivial detail. This ain’t healthy, folks.

So how can we correct this? From a brand perspective, I have an idea.

the brand strategy of joyful failure

Celebrating failure, as Hayhurst pointed out, is useful for a number of reasons. We learn from it, and we build community around our shared imperfections.

Community is one of the key pillars of every successful brand strategy. Could brands build a community of fans by admitting imperfection?

Consider the story of the Bass Pub from the Book of Heroic Failures:

“In 1995 the Polar Bear in Soho was named the worst pub in London by the listings magazine Time Out. Business immediately shot up by 60%. By the time they had erected a banner outside saying ‘The Worst Pub in the West End’ it was impossible to get in.”

Or, on a larger (and more serious) scale, take a look at Patagonia’s Footprint Chronicles – a wildly successful program that pointed out the company’s frustrations with the unsustainable way it produced its garments.

Finally, take a look at Apple. Behind the bright white sheen lurk countless errors and failures (remember asking artists to play along with Apple Radio for free for 3 months?) But Apple remains undiminished, because the company isn’t afraid to pivot, or even abort. And it still treats mishaps and gaffes as opportunities to get closer to its fans.

I believe there’s tremendous blue ocean for brands willing to embrace imperfection.

And if you fail, you’ll succeed even more convincingly next time.

As a brand strategy expert, successful entrepreneur, and award-winning author, Marc Stoiber uses simplicity and creativity to help people discover what’s awesome about their business… and then helps them tell the world. For more on creating your company’s value proposition, connect with Marc on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, and sign up to his monthly newsletter.  

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