The secret to a winning brand is mastering the epic fail

Clay Shirky famously said “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.” What he meant was this: once you create an institution to solve a problem, that institution must avoid solving the problem in order to avoid becoming irrelevant. If the problem is solved definitively then that institution no longer needs to exist.

The lesson for brands is paradoxical: in order to thrive, a brand must fail to deliver on its brand promise. While this sounds ridiculous initially, the examples below show that it's not only sane, but essential, to do this.

For example: Nike was founded on the idea that there is an athlete inside every single human being, just waiting to get out. While some customers do find their athletic potential through the brand, a much larger number do not; and yet this failure is not a problem for the brand, its credibility or its sales. According to the Shirky principle, this is not an accident, it's essential to Nike's success as a company.

On the flip side, the UK Independence Party made a specific organizational promise: to get the UK out of the EU. As of 2016 it was "mission accomplished"; as of 2017 the party is on the brink of total collapse. A great example of institutional success destroying the institution that delivered it.

So how can brands fail in a way that precipitates growth, rather than collapse? While there's no perfect formula, I have some key principles I believe you should follow from my years spent in this field.

  1. Be slightly nebulous in what you set out to do. Apple's "Think Different" is a perfect example of this; it encourages people to find their full human creative potential. We kind of get it, but it's vague. It is specific enough to be intriguing, but it's not really clear when you are "done". As it turns out, that's not an accident, it's a great example of an infinite game; a game that defines winning as "more play".

  2. Pick a really worthwhile, yet intractable problem. This one is really important. The genius of Nike's brand is that the problem they are working on is hard enough that it will never be solved for most people. Most will not "just do it" and will have to settle for sneakers of greatness as a substitute for the actual expeirence.

  3. Make sure there's a genuine path to progress. The problem needs to be impossible to solve, not impossible to work on. The Apple Mac, The FitBit, even Starbucks' pursuit of "greater human connectedness over cups of coffee" all fit the bill here. It's the path to progress that allows the brand to achieve partial success at solving its intractable problem. This is the difference between brands that fail well, by falling short of total success, and simple frauds that simply promise something that they have no intention of delivering.

  4. Try really hard. This one requires that you first address points 1-3, above, or it won't work. When you try really hard, your employees are actually engaged and excited, everyone gets to indulge their love of underdogs and winners at the same time by cheering a company as it attempts to achieve the impossible. When the talking heads talk about "brand authenticity", this is what they are talking about; having a sincere crack at a problem and not trying to fob customers off with token efforts. A big nebulous problem allows a brand the freedom to try hard without worrying about destroying itself through too much success. Relative newcomer Equinox Fitness does a great job of this: they really want you to look like the models on their posters, if you don't get there it's not for lack of trying on their part.

If all this seems unbearably cynical, I would encourage a reframe. The brands discussed here create genuine value in customers' lives, and in myriad ways. By framing their efforts towards solving the ultimately unsolvable, these brands have chosen to slay invincible dragons. This is something that most brands are afraid to do because they erroneously assume that failure in a brand promise means failure of the business.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Epic failure to slay dragons in business is exciting and leads to tremendous opportunities to create product and service innovations. The exercise of going after the unachievable pushes organizations outside of their comfort zones and into new territories where competitors fear to tread. It is the emotional force behind truly embracing "Blue Ocean Strategy" thinking. Without it, a business will be forever condemned to compare itself to other, equally unambitious organizations.

As Peter Thiel said in"Zero to One" : “All failed companies are the same: they failed to escape competition.” He does not mean specific competitors here. He means that they failed to escape the notion of competition. He means that they defined themselves in terms of outside forces ("the industry") and not on their own terms.

The way out of this conundrum is to take on something really big and stop worrying about just how unachievable it is. When it comes to building brand power, the bigger you fail, the more you win.