Ajeeta Bharadwaj
Guest Article

Ajeeta Bharadwaj: The Science of Imperfect

As decoded by Leo Burnett's executive planning director Ajeeta Bharadwaj.

Human beings are designed to find imperfections appealing. It's the reason why a scar intrigues us, as does a crooked canine. Or why women feel a sneaking attraction for the lovable rascal more than Mr. Nice Guy. In fiction, too, the real greats are made memorable by their imperfections. Sherlock Holmes -- the ultimate flawed genius, Hamlet -- haunted by indecision, Othello -- tragically jealous, and, Mona Lisa -- unsymmetrical!

Ajeeta Bharadwaj: The Science of Imperfect

Yet, for the longest time, Indian society chased perfection. Children grew up hearing stories from the Ramayana where characters personified absolute perfection. 'Maryada Purushottam' Prince Ram. Sita, the perfect queen. Hanuman, the perfect devotee, Lakshman and Bharat, the perfect brothers, and Raavan, the perfect demon king. Bollywood movies replicated this with perfect mothers who scrimped and saved to feed and educate their sons, who then grew up into perfect heroes who could sing, dance, and fight to perfection.

The Gandhian model espoused moral perfection built on uncompromising virtues: truth, simplicity, cleanliness, mental purity, non-violence. Any lapse in virtue - rage, violence, lust or any vice -- smoking, drinking, gambling -- became a character flaw. The equation was clear: Perfection was 'Good'. Imperfection was 'Bad'. Which is why it was so astounding when Indian society did a volte-face and gave a warm welcome to Sunny Leone!

Leone carried both her porn star tag and her voluptuous figure like a badge. She spoke Hindi with a pronounced accent! Physically, morally, professionally, there was a potential case for her 'imperfections'. Yet here she was, comfortable in her skin, accepted in mainstream cinema and beating others hollow in national desirability polls!

Indian advertising, too, was opening up to physical 'imperfections'. Take Nescafe's stammering stand-up comic, Dabur's 'Brave and Beautiful' woman, HDFC Life's physically-challenged daughter and her single dad, or Ambuja Cement's ad with Khali as the clumsy, bumbling giant who keeps inadvertently breaking walls.

This reflects real life. Today, youth icons are loved for their imperfections. Virat Kohli, for his aggression, Honey Singh for his swagger. The flawed portrait of Lord Shiva in Amish Tripathi's 'Meluha' trilogy has re-engaged many Indian readers.

For us as marketers, the question is this: At a time when every player is trying to refine on perfection, can brands leverage the innate appeal of imperfections to get an edge over competition?

We studied the various shades of imperfect and found seven imperfection narratives.

Imperfect = Natural

How do you identify a naturally grown Alphonso from the sea of artificially ripened mangoes? Experts tell you to go for the wrinkled one! Likewise, natural flaws can provide the reassurance that the product is natural. Like Tata Sampann, which equates the duller look of its unpolished 'daals' with the fact that they are left the way Nature intended.

Ajeeta Bharadwaj: The Science of Imperfect

Imperfect = Collaborative

Talent shows often mix the good with the mediocre and open voting lines. The audience feels responsible for eliminating laggards and get emotionally involved! Brands can appeal to people's DIY instincts by leaving one step undone. #FAME, India's leading talent app, allows viewers to make live suggestions to performers. If a performance is flawed, instead of logging out, users stay logged on to give feedback and get involved in the process.

Ajeeta Bharadwaj: The Science of Imperfect

Imperfect = Exciting

For a cynic, a tattoo is little more than a body scar. But, research shows that it goes a long way in making you interesting. A 2008 Harris poll found that a third of the respondents without tattoos believed that those with tattoos would do something deviant. Many youth brands deliberately use flawed endorsers or weave in imperfections to become exciting. An example is Fastrack's 'Sorry for what' campaign.

Ajeeta Bharadwaj: The Science of Imperfect

Imperfect = Authentic

Many sellers of Lucknow Chikan embroidery deliberately leave the untidy tangle of knots on the underside. This 'messy back' becomes the signifier of the fabric being handmade by village craftswomen and not through machines. Internationally, Pizza Hut is focussing on authentic, hand-tossed pizzas with intensive training given on how to bring in deliberate imperfections, for example, discontinuing the roller on the dough to preserve air bubbles.

Imperfect = Beneficial

Sometimes, a flaw stands for a higher good. Take the case of Mahindra Reva. Despite the in-built flaws of battery-operated cars, it still finds hard-core advocates because in a world suffocating on its own pollution levels, Reva is doing good for the environment.

Ajeeta Bharadwaj: The Science of Imperfect

Imperfect = Effective

Sometimes a 'flaw' makes us more efficient in our lives. Do you know that the human wrist seems to be imperfectly designed with thin bones that fracture easily? But, this 'flaw' is central to us by enabling us to rotate our wrist easily to pick up, catch and swing things. A brand that leveraged a flaw to claim efficacy is the Canadian cough medicine Buckley's. The product had an awful taste, but loyalists swore by its efficiency. The brand simply connected the dots with its tagline: "It Tastes Awful. And It Works".

Ajeeta Bharadwaj: The Science of Imperfect

Imperfect = Vintage

In a slick and photo-shopped world, the Instagram effect charms with its old-world appeal. The minimalistic effect controls take you away from the over-lit, over-staged, over-edited world to a purer, more innocent bygone era that you want to re-engage with. This explains the surge of vintage goods and experiences.

Ajeeta Bharadwaj: The Science of Imperfect

In passing: The '9 nines' filter

Experts say that silicon chips are not 100 per cent pure. Chip technology introduces tiny amounts of defects into the silicon. But, the amount is calibrated to retain '9 nines' silicon, i.e. 99.9999999 per cent purity. So also, a brand must be 9 nines perfect to carry off its imperfections. Otherwise, imperfections can just add up to incompetent brands that fade away over time.

Ajeeta Bharadwaj: The Science of Imperfect

(The author is executive planning director, Leo Burnett)