Mistakes Make People More Likeable But Brands Less So


It feels counter-intuitive. Can your flaws and mistakes actually make you more likeable? A comparison illustrates how your personal brand can afford to mess up - assuming you are competent, but your business brand certainly cannot. It is interesting to compare both.


How Can Your Flaws Really Enhance Your Personal Brand?

Psychologist Elliot Aronson discovered that people who were considered 'superior' by others could become more attractive after committing a small mistake or 'pratfall' of low-consequence. The degree of attractiveness varied, depending on level of competence.


In the experiment, Aronson recorded an actor at a quiz playing the role of contestant. The pre-briefed actor answered 92% of questions correctly and then pretended to spill coffee. The recording was played to two groups of students who were asked to judge how likeable the contestant was - one including the spillage, the other excluding it. Students consistently found the clumsy contestant to be more likeable. This is now known as the Pratfall Effect. We see this play out all the time with individuals and media highlights it more visibly with celebrities, musicians, royalty and global leaders.

Why Is this The Case?

There are several behavioural effects in force including relativity and self-reference. Perfect people makes us feel small. When they visibly mess up, their elevated status is reduced and they seem more vulnerable, endearing and relatable. As a result, we feel a lot better about ourselves.


Conversely, when people whom you perceive as incompetent mess up, this has the opposite effect. Think of an under-performing colleague or an irritating in-law. You unconsciously use their small errors as a reason to justify your sustained dislike. Nothing will change your pre-formed opinion. Classic confirmation bias.


Does this Effect also Hold True for a Corporate Brand?

I think not. Brands that are considered superior are placed on a pedestal of perfection. They promise excellence in a high-consequence capability and offer market advantage. They are unilaterally liked, admired and respected, typically ranking in BrandZ's GlobalTop 100, amongst Tencent, Microsoft and Apple, the 1st publicly-traded US brand to reach $1trn in market capitalisation earlier this year.


Consumers expect brands to be a source of infallible trust and reliability, whether it is Domestos, Duracell or Delta. Brand trust is built on capability (competence), benevolence (acts in my best interest) and character (ethics). If these factors become unexpectedly or repeatedly flawed eg. airline strike or faulty phone line, the brand halo tarnishes. Brand distrust turns to dislike, resulting in disloyalty, defection and share price decline. Wells Fargo and Ratners spring to mind.


As consumers have disproportionately high brand expectations and are emotionally invested, they are less likely to be forgiving of any mistakes.


Does a Brand that is Open about its Relative Flaws make it more Likeable?

Perhaps for a period and if some loyalty exists. Some consumer brands have successfully advertised their relative disadvantage in media campaigns eg the costlier Stella Artois beer is “Reassuringly expensive”; the smaller Volkswagen car advocates to “Think Small”; or the slower Guinness pour suggests “Good things come to those who wait”.


Interestingly, The ‘Pratfall Effect’ Varies based on Factors including Gender. Research suggests that men tend to be more swayed by the Pratfall effect. They are more susceptible to a woman's stumble, slip-up or blunder than a woman is susceptible to a man's. A notion exploited in Hollywood romantic movies. This echoes the negative gender correlation with success and likability. Research shows that the more successful a man, the more his male peers like him. But the more successful a woman, the less she is liked – by both men and women!


Why might this happen? Female success is judged as counter-culture by some men and a source of envy by some women. Success is a relative signal. We measure our success by comparison mostly with people we know such as colleagues, friends or relatives. When they are successful, our subconscious tells us that we must be comparatively weaker. Such interpretations makes you feel inferior and may create a temporary dislike of the other person.


Whereas a personal brand can afford to blunder, a business brand cannot. So if you want your personal brand to become better liked by colleagues or friends, you firstly need to be seen as competent or superior, and then commit the occasional visible blunder. But if you need your corporate brand to enjoy a lifetime of likability by a legion of adoring consumers, employees and shareholders, you must remain permanently perched on that pedestal of perfection.