The Pratfall Effect & Brands
Kyle Hoffman, Director of Growth Strategy | June 23 2023
Humans have a natural tendency to root for the underdog. From David and Goliath to Bad News Bears, our culture is full of stories of people who triumph against the odds, learning from their mistakes and recalibrating, trying and trying again. Conventional wisdom suggests that brands always put their best foot forward, appealing to consumers by seeming competent, effective, and efficient—but what if we told you that your brand could use mistakes to your advantage, connecting to consumers and creating a compelling story of triumphing against the odds? How? By taking advantage of the Pratfall Effect.
What is The Pratfall Effect?
A cognitive bias that causes people to like someone or something more after they make a mistake, The Pratfall Effect makes us instantly sympathize with other people, and organizations, when they make mistakes—in part because it makes us remember past times when we ourselves have failed. People perceive those who make mistakes as increasingly relatable and down-to-earth, as mistakes highlight the commonality of our shared experience.
Brands naturally want to showcase their strengths when interacting with consumers, but we all make mistakes occasionally. By taking advantage of The Pratfall Effect, brands can leverage their mistakes to their advantage. Owning past errors and being transparent with customers can make your brand come across as more likable and trustworthy. Admitting to your mistakes suggests that you’ve learned from them, helping consumers see your brand as stronger and more worthy of their attention.
This effect is especially powerful in a consumer landscape where customers value authenticity above all else. Brands building a presence online can leverage the power of The Pratfall Effect to humanize themselves, connecting with consumers on a deeper level.
How Owning Your Brand’s Mistakes Can Lead to Stronger Connections
Effectively leveraging The Pratfall Effect can be a powerful tool for brands seeking to build stronger, and more authentic, relationships with their consumer base. So how could The Pratfall help boost your brand’s profile? Let’s take a closer look.
- Authenticity and relatability:
Humans universally value genuine interactions and authenticity—both in their communities and within their consumer experiences. Embracing The Pratfall Effect allows businesses to demonstrate their willingness to acknowledge their imperfections, placing transparency above profits.
By owning up to their mistakes, and centering what might be perceived as “flaws,” brands can demonstrate strong self knowledge and show that they’re human after all, emphasizing the values and experiences they share with their audiences, which makes them seem more trustworthy and more relatable.
- Increased likability:
Demonstrating self awareness and growth are two incredibly likable traits in people as well as in brands. When a brand owns past mistakes and commits to doing better, we’re more likely to perceive it as growing rather than diminishing in value, and might feel a stronger allegiance as a result of that increased likability.
Why? It all comes down to owning it. Acknowledging mistakes and showcasing vulnerability can make a brand seem more relatable and human. After all, nothing is more human than an occasional failure! This acknowledgement increases likeability, and consumers’ likelihood of developing positive associations with the brand.
- Emotional connection:
Evoking an emotional response drives a sense of deeper connection. Whether you make someone laugh, cry, or cringe, when we connect emotionally to people we move beyond the realm of logical behavior and into something deeper—and more likely to make a true, lasting impact.
Vulnerability and the use of humor in owning up to mistakes create emotional connections with consumers, increasing the positive perception associated with your brand. When leveraging The Pratfall Effect, brands are able to evoke positive emotional responses, increasing their chances of building long-term relationships with customers.
- Differentiation from competitors:
Every brand claims to be perfect. It’s easy for consumers to let this mantle of perceived perfection blur into one singular brand identity, making your brand and competitors in the same niche seem linked inextricably, and largely interchangeable with one another.
The Pratfall Effect eliminates that perceived sameness by making your brand stand out, creating a narrative of failure and redemption that belongs to you alone. Brands can set themselves apart from competitors who are likely to strive for an image of perfection by embracing their flaws and turning them into endearing qualities.
- Make brand identity more memorable:
Human brains are oriented towards remembering stories—and a story of succeeding against the odds, despite the effects of past mistakes, is one that has almost universal appeal, and is more likely to be memorable to consumers.
When your brand uses a marketing campaign that incorporates The Pratfall Effect, it’s creating a unique story that stands out. Making people laugh, reflect, and relate to your mistakes will leave a lasting impression, increasing the chances of consumers remembering your brand.
Brands Who Have Benefitted from Their Mistakes
The Pratfall Effect clearly has a powerful theoretical impact on consumer perception of a brand, but has it ever been used in the real world? Yes, and effectively! Here are two real world examples of brands who have created major successful marketing campaigns around their perceived failures, connecting with consumers and improving their reputation for authenticity.
Guinness: Good Things Come to Those Who Wait
In one famous example of a brand leading with its perceived flaws, Guinness’ Surfer ad campaign placed the “inconvenience” of waiting to sip a freshly pulled Guinness stout and put it front and center to the beer’s appeal.
Enjoying a Guinness at a bar, or even decanted from a can at home, is famously something of a prolonged process. The bartender or drinker must wait for at least 60 seconds, the length of the ad, for the nitrogen bubbles used to carbonate the beer to settle—which is also the reason for the distinctive curved beer company’s signature branded pint glasses.
In a convenience minded culture where people are used to get what they want, when they want it, this wait time could be a drag. Consumers might take it as a sign that the brand is old school, or somehow behind the times. But with the Surfer ad reframing the narrative, that witing process becomes a major part of Guinness’ appeal.
Waiting for a Guinness is tied to the hip factor of a surfer waiting on a wave, a drummer waiting for the beat to drop. Thus, Guinness’ “failure” of convenience becomes a strength. Voted best ad by The Independent, the campaign had a major cultural impact, and boosted the brand’s value for decades to come.
Volkswagen: We’re Working to Make Things Right
In the case of Guinness’s Surfer ad campaign, the brand’s “flaw,” was subjective, and based on reframing a consumer experience that might be frustrating as a sign of quality. But as Volkswagen proves, The Pratfall Effect can also be used to pivot after a genuine disaster, reclaiming a brand’s lost strength.
In 2015, the Volkswagen company was rocked by scandal as key executives admitted that it had been a policy to cheat on admissions tests for their diesel vehicles. In response, the company launched a campaign whose tagline was "We're Working to Make Things Right."
Where other companies might have sought to avoid acknowledging this mistake in public, Volkswagen placed it front and center of their communications, taking full advantage of the impact of The Pratfall Effect.
Not only did the campaign acknowledge Volkswagen’s mistakes, it made specific promises to consumers as it worked to regain their lost trust. The result of embracing transparency and accountability? The next year, the Volkswagen Group increased its deliveries to customers worldwide by 3.7% and reached a new all-time high of 10,296,997 vehicles sold.
These examples showcase how brands can openly admit to failures, whether actual or perceived, and use that admission to gain increased consumer confidence. By showing a genuine commitment to improvement and acknowledging past mistakes, brands appeal to their audiences’ desire for honesty, integrity, and accountability.
While it sounds illogical, there is significant behavioral science evidence that proves embracing The Pratfall Effect is a powerful tactic—and these examples show that the market bears that research out. By admitting to mistakes, whether subjective or actual, both Guinness and Volkswagen successfully grew their market shares.
Leading With Authenticity
Above all else, if your brand is going to take advantage of The Pratfall Effect, it needs to do so authentically. If a brand is seen as performing humanity, or being inauthentic or unrelatable, trying to use The Pratfall Effect can backfire—ending up damaging your brand’s reputation.
The key to using The Pratfall Effect, well, effectively, is to embrace self reflection and be as authentic as you can. When brands are transparent about owning past mistakes, consumers are more likely to forgive them, even coming to see them in a more positive light.
As the famous saying goes, “To err is human, to forgive divine.” When done correctly, The Pratfall Effect can showcase the humanity of your errors, allowing consumers the positive emotional experience of growth and forgiveness that will build a stronger sense of loyalty to your brand.