Is Vulnerability the New Invincibility?
Superstar gymnast Simone Biles earned headlines, magazine covers and heaps of praise this past summer after she, citing stress, withdrew from a string of events at the Tokyo Olympics. Biles was, of course, just the latest in a lineup of sports figures to bravely come out about their personal struggles, following the likes of Michael Phelps, Naomi Osaka, Kevin Love and Gracie Gold.
But it’s not just sports heroes and celebrities that have revealed a more exposed, accessible side — leading brands, too, are finding the power in vulnerability, especially in the era of COVID-19. Airlines, hotel chains, restaurants, healthcare providers and other industries heavily impacted by the pandemic have jammed the airwaves and our social media feeds with messaging that telegraphs their challenges in the face of the health crisis.
Vulnerability is so in that some marketers seem to have all but adopted it as a brand attribute, following the playbook of best-selling inspirational author Brené Brown, who suggests that “when you shut down vulnerability, you shut down opportunity.”
You might recall a few years back when Domino’s, in a campaign dubbed “We’re Sorry for Sucking,” admitted its pizza tasted like cardboard and set out to do something about it, growing its market share from 9% to more than 15% in the process. More recently, Peloton recalled treadmills after initially pushing back against charges they were unsafe. Finding itself in a PR disaster, the brand admitted its error in judgement and turned the tide. As it happens, long is the list of brands — from Apple to Zara — that got points after they admitted their own fallibility and apologized to customers.
Then there are the brands that spotlight not their own vulnerabilities but those of consumers. In its acclaimed “Real Beauty” ads, Unilever’s Dove co-opted the theme on behalf of women everywhere who have been made to feel lesser-than because of the fantastical media image of the supposedly flawless female. At the outset of the pandemic, Dove put a new spin on the long-running campaign with “Courage Is Beautiful,” showing faces of healthcare workers donning protective gear.
“Vulnerability can be a byproduct of transparency and honesty,” explains the CEO of a top sports and entertainment marketing firm,* who stresses that vulnerability should not be equated with weakness. “Being transparent, upfront, honest, admitting mistakes — all are positions of strength for a brand,” he contends. “To hide, delay communication, hold back are positions of weakness, and consumers lose trust.”
He believes Biles may well have more marketers embracing vulnerability, considering how public figures are heralded for owning up to their personal challenges, and how the brands that support them are seen. In fact, the Edelman Trust Barometer, which gauges public opinion of brands, found that 86% of consumers expect companies to take action beyond their core business, while 63% are more attracted to brands that are focused on making the world a better place. “That humanization and vulnerability helps with how consumers feel about [Biles] and how they ultimately will feel about a brand that associates with her,” the exec says.
Biles had a number of brand endorsements going into this year’s Olympics, and those advertisers — including Athleta, Visa, United Airlines and Core Power — uniformly came out in support of her.
Pointing to industry conversations around the importance of authenticity in recent years, one ad agency CEO related that “there’s no authenticity without vulnerability,” adding, “When you look at someone like Simone Biles, who’s had an exceptional career despite so many imperfect circumstances … she is someone to be saluted. To take time out and focus on oneself is something all of us can take lessons from.”
Another agency exec, who has written extensively about vulnerability and brands, believes there’s much for marketers to learn from Biles and fellow athletes like Naomi Osaka, another Olympian who won raves (and landed the cover of Time magazine) for putting her own personal needs ahead of sports. “Their ability to embrace vulnerability and reclaim their autonomy in a world, culture and industry that shames it is the definition of strength and bravery,” says the exec. “As a whole, I’m seeing a major brand shift in this direction, and these women are acting as both an outcome and a catalyst of vulnerability.”
Likewise, the CEO of a well-known influencer marketing firm says he sees Biles as the embodiment of a global dialogue. “Here you have a woman of color, competing on a national stage, who said, ‘I’m going to forego the normal fame and fortune of competing and trying to become the proverbial Wheaties box champion and do what’s best for my teammates and myself, who says you do what’s best for you and your family,’” he explains. “Everyone can relate to that visceral feeling where stress makes you ill or unable to function at peak position. It reminds us, we’re all regular people.”
Another top marketing exec is not surprised Biles’s journey has resonated, especially among young consumers — or that advertisers have taken to showing their vulnerability. “This generation is devoted to social good more than any other demographic,” as the exec puts it. “They want brands that are fully transparent, that they can relate to, that stand up for ethics and that show them how to walk through the world.”
In other words, as consumers cheer on public figures for their vulnerabilities as well as their triumphs, they expect brands to value that humanity every bit as much as they do.
As the popular author Cheryl Strayed once put it: “That story about vulnerability being weakness is a lie. The strongest, bravest thing we can possibly do is tell the truth.”
*I wrote this story for a publication that never ran it. (As a freelance writer, hey, it happens sometimes.) Therefore, I redacted the names, titles and companies of the sources I quoted, seeing as they agreed to speak to me for a story in a publication that ultimately did not run it. Even after sitting around for six months in my desktop dustbin, I hope you’ll find it a timely and useful read.