Don’t make it too easy: Why friction can be sticky for brands

Alison TillingWhile most brands aim to make their customer touchpoints as easy as possible Alison Tilling argues making people work for it will make them value it more.

Most brands and agencies aim to create seamless experiences for people. We design them to be easy, coherent and united across channels. Most of the time, that’s great. It means a world where things just work, quickly and well.

But for brands it is dangerous, because ultimately it could also lead to a world of bland sameness.

Of course no-one wants unnecessary pain, but there can be gold hidden in a brand’s rough edges that will help it stand out – and for all the right reasons.

Be (a little bit) more human How often recently have you seen LinkedIn or Facebook quotes about perfectionism being the enemy, being brave enough to fail, and so on? We seem to be warming up to messing up in our personal endeavours. That means less focus on ironing out all our own rough edges, and more focus on the things that make us uniquely us. It’s time to try doing the same with the brands we work on, to make experiences with them more memorable, and ultimately more ownable.

The beauty of imperfection This brings me to Wabi-sabi. No, I’d never heard of it either until a couple of months ago, and reading more on it made me think about the possibilities for brands. Wabi-sabi is a Japanese philosophy that expounds the beauty of imperfection, the rough edges, the seams of things (though there’s a lot more to it than that!).

Leonard Koren, a western proponent of Wabi-sabi, describes it as:

Pare down to the essence, but don’t remove the poetry. Keep things clean and unencumbered, but don’t sterilise them.”

(See Wabi-sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers, 1994).

Sterilisation is a danger to brands as technology moves us closer to the fastest and simplest transactions we can get; sometimes, the poetry lies elsewhere.

Take Ikea – it’s the friction that makes it. While we might whinge about the complicated instructions for putting the bookcase together, we humans value making things ourselves and the pain that goes along with that (see “The Ikea Effect” Journal of Consumer Psychology, July 2012). IKEA also has a great way of helping shoppers turn frictions into celebrations, like the rewarding hot dog available for $1 at the end of the long arduous process of queuing.

Square’s CEO, Jack Dorsey, is a known proponent of Wabi-sabi. Looking at the Square card reader, its poetry is not only in the great experience of using it, but in its starkly white, slightly bulky contrast to the iPad’s thin black and silver lines. Its beautiful, standout seams make it a human, not a sterile way to pay.

In our work with Aldi, we’ve noticed that the unique checkout experience can be a powerful brand symbol. The reason for the fast, self-packing checkout is built into the business model, and knowing how to deal with it is a sign of an Aldi aficionado – a real smarter shopper. It gives an ownable tension, a moment of stickiness for the brand that others can’t copy.

Ownable tensions aren’t an excuse for laziness.

Recognising and designing for friction doesn’t mean we shouldn’t remove real barriers or moments of difficulty. A brand experience that’s much harder than it needs to be, but that doesn’t add value, won’t get anyone anywhere.

Brands should be aiming for experiences that are memorable and difficult for other brands to replicate. This is where a pinch of Wabi-sabi, humanity and making the most of the rough edges can help.

Alison Tilling is a planner at BMF


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