Perfect imperfections: lessons from small brands on being more human

Image: Oatly

Image: Oatly

As grocery stores spring up with no checkout tills and drones fly packaged goods straight to our doorsteps, our demand for instant gratification has grown stronger. Amazon’s two-hour delivery option has fuelled expectation for immediate access to the things we buy – as well as our exasperation when faced with even minor interruptions.

But when oat-based milk startup Oatly was too overwhelmed to keep up with customer demand, rather than prompting customer frustration, its popularity seemed to grow stronger. A New Yorker article: “Hey, Where’s My Oat Milk?”, describes the oat milk shortage of 2016 in New York City – when supply dried up just six months after it landed in trendy cafes across Brooklyn – and the brand’s continued ascent despite it.

This isn’t the first time a lack of supply has positively impacted people’s perception of a brand - even fanned their desire for its products. In July 2016, beauty brand Glossier sold out of all of its bestselling products. Similarly, Waldo – the online contact lens retailer – has faced stock issues in the UK. And yet, despite these stumbling blocks, both have seen huge growth. In fact, during Glossier’s stocking crisis, the waiting list for its ‘Generation G’ lipstick reached 10,000; in that year alone the brand experienced 600% YoY growth.

How have these businesses turned seeming failures into drivers of such impressive growth? In simple terms, they’ve used these imperfections to appear more human. Today, 95% of online adults aged 18-34 follow at least one brand on social media. Increasingly, brands like Oatly and Glossier occupy the same space as our friends and family and the influencers we choose to follow. While it’s important not to overstate the type of relationship people are building with brands in this digital space, this does have implications for how people expect a brand to act.

Mike Messersmith, general manager of Oatly, argues that periodic shortages of oat milk are important to allow “the humanness of the company to come through”. As the brains behind the brand strive to fulfil demand, they have remained committed to their product and preserving its quality. Similarly, Glossier responded to its stocking issue with an open, heartfelt letter to fans that read: “as we grow Glossier, we are realising that building a company is a little like going through puberty—we’re growing up, which is cool, but sometimes it’s a bit awkward”.  

But while people might forgive (even respond well to) smaller, independent brands following a stocking issue, what about a global business that employs thousands and produces millions of products every year? KFC’s cheek and self-deprecating humour in response to a shortage of chicken this year was pitch perfect; but the same approach won’t work for every company – just as not all people are the same.

Regardless of the type of business, there are two core principles that apply to all brands:

1.     Be upfront. When you think your company could be doing better, be the first to say it. TOMs – the social enterprise that donates a pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair sold – has acknowledged the importance of building a supply chain in the same markets as its charitable giving, that will bolster that economy in a meaningful way. Building a sustainable supply chain like this takes time and effort and so could interrupt supply, but honesty, diligence and proactivity has only endeared the brand further to its customers.

2.     Give yourself a face. The BFF marketing tactics employed by growing challenger brands might not feel right for a bigger company. But when your brand makes a mistake, a person taking ownership of that error can be extremely powerful. It can make you appear more human, relatable – and, ultimately, more forgivable. It seems simple, but when British Airways suffered from a ‘malicious’ data breach, the response needed to match the gravity of the offence; and an apology from contrite CEO Alex Cruz himself, felt all the more sincere.

Anna Wilmot, Flamingo