In 2010, researcher Brené Brown gave a TED talk in Houston on vulnerability. It ended up being one of the most watched TED talks of all time. It launched her into the media stratosphere with books, additional talks and appearances on national television.

Most recently, the Huffington Foundation has endowed a new chair named the Brené Brown Endowed Chair in the Graduate College of Social Work at the University of Houston to further study vulnerability and its relationship to courage. It will donate $2 million over four years to continue Brown’s research into how courage and vulnerability play a role in leadership and organizational change. The study of vulnerability is now a formal academic discipline.

To garner this kind of investment and interest in such an emotional topic is novel given our culture’s motto of “Never let them see you sweat.” The idea of vulnerability runs counter to the messages of strength and power in American culture where control is everything. This message is deeply embedded in our myths of the American West, the narrative of the American Dream, and at play in our polarized politics. Being vulnerable in American culture, and business culture in particular, is seen as a liability, both figuratively and sometimes literally.

So why are people so deeply interested in vulnerability? Perhaps it is because for the first time as a culture, we have recognized something universal to everyone: vulnerability is something we all feel and something we all struggle with individually. What makes Brené Brown’s message so compelling is that her extensive research shows for the first time that vulnerability is actually powerful.

Vulnerability as Strength

Vulnerability as strength is a new idea for culture and for business. Brown says in her talk: “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.” What could better describe the dynamics of business? 

Vulnerability is where creativity begins, why are we not more vulnerable & open in our day-to-day business practices?

Deep down of course, we all know why: fear. Fear of looking weak. Fear of litigation. Fear of a loss of customers. Fear of shipping the wrong product. Fear of not hitting quarterly revenue targets. For American businesses today, vulnerability is not viewed as a strength, it is most definitely viewed as a liability.

This is changing. With the introduction of social media as a major marketing tool, we have begun to shift our view on vulnerability as a business practice. Businesses generate millions of pieces of content every day on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Brands reaching out and responding to customers every day are the new normal. Customers now regularly check social media for updates and new information about their favorite products and services. They also have a new channel of information for their ideas and complaints. Businesses can respond more quickly to inquiries and problems.

On the surface of Brene Brown’s popularity, what gets lost is the original insight that lead to her vulnerability breakthrough. As a qualitative researcher, she was studying open-hearted people, and the way they live and why they appeared to have the key to happiness. She identified that open-hearted people have a strong sense of love and belonging and they believe they’re worthy. They possess courage, compassion and connection. These attributes are what give life meaning.

Whether you are a business or an individual, when you believe that you are worthy, you are willing to say no to what doesn’t serve you. That requires being vulnerable. 

At the brand-building level, vulnerability is the new secret sauce. Brands now strive to include a new openness with their customers and are building competitive points of difference on their own, or their customer’s, vulnerability. 

Channeling Founder Vulnerability

ConBody, a workout brand based in New York City, is an example of a company's entire essence and brand experience built on a perceived weakness. The founder, Coss Marte, personally oversaw a million-dollar cocaine-and-marijuana empire in New York City before getting busted. Once locked up, however, he not only rethought his life—he conceived an entirely new and original way of getting fit. 

The brand's product is a workout methodology that relies on zero equipment, just the resistance from everyday objects and the individual's body weight. Marte and his team of trainers lead classes in their Lower East Side gym and outdoors in the neighborhood. They also offer a live-stream subscription model so dedicated customers can nab a workout from their apartments. 

The gym's physical brand experience is no-frills prison decor—concrete blocks, heavy steel doors and concertina wire, with a drab gray, black and white color palette, reinforcing that you're there for one thing only, to #dothetime. Coincidentally this keeps overhead and facilities costs minimal. 

The real power of the ConBody brand is the message that success lies within. You don't need expensive classes or fancy gear to get in shape. You have to commit and put in the time to see results. 

Con Body Collage Tall

Channeling Customer Vulnerability 

Women’s workwear company MM.Lafleur built their brand around their customer’s vulnerability—professional women who hate to shop. 

MM.LaFleur founder Sarah LaFleur was your typical woman in finance whose closet was packed with blah-feeling pantsuits. Back then, she dreamed of a more inspired wardrobe for herself and all professional women. When she launched MM.LaFleur in 2013, she made it her mission to put the fun and the ease back into the ritual of dressing for work—and to rethink the shopping process altogether. Their mission is to make the purposeful woman look and feel beautiful, without having to work too hard at it.

MM.LaFleur's solution for the busy professional woman’s vulnerability is to address convenience, style and quality. They cut out shopping entirely, replacing it with a Bento Box. Inspired by the Japanese tradition of serving an entire five-course meal in a neat little box, MM.LaFleur sends customers a box of personally curated products designed to come together as a complete set of outfits—dresses, blazers, even accessories—that a woman would need for a week at the office. Customers who visit the website are invited to answer a short questionnaire about their style and body shape, and a week later the Bento arrives at their doorstep. They can keep and pay for the products they like, then return the rest for free

Mmlafleur Collage Tall

The quality of the product is exquisite. They’ve put a lot of energy into creating versatile that look great on a range of body types and can be styled a multitude of ways. MM has a helpful blog that features how to style their clothing, as well as inspirational women in the business world. Their email marketing is also fantastic. The real secret weapon for this brand is their team of stylists. They make you feel like you have a personal relationship with them.

Be Prepared When Vulnerability Finds You

If you don’t have vulnerability built in to your brand already, eventually you’ll need to acknowledge it in one way or another. It’s inevitable that at some point you will get negative feedback from customers, investors and media. When you encounter negative feedback, acknowledge it and be proactive. The primary negative emotions — shame, disgust, fear — are a part of life. Too often brands want to ignore those feelings and put on a happy face. Your customers see through the fake smile.

Volkswagen tried to stick their fingers in their ears and make the TDI scandal go away. It resulted in a PR disaster, huge fines and an epic buyback program that has tanked their value. Yahoo tried to hide the fact that they were hacked and lost millions of users’ private data instead of contacting customers and letting them know immediately. Wells Fargo pressured sales associates to open accounts in customers’ names without their authorizations. Chipotle offered a 61 page mea culpa for their e coli outbreak, but continues to struggle years after the problems without consistent proactive messaging to customers. The trust in each brand is now damaged forever.

It doesn’t have to be like this. It’s ok to recognize your flaws, and it’s actually respected by customers. Microsoft recognized that Internet Explorer was considered outdated and created a campaign that said “The browser you loved to hate just got better.” It featured a somewhat disturbed young man who has a compulsion of uninstalling IE and a curious relationship with his cat. He is able to finally admit that new IE 9 is a better version. This funny approach contains enough truth to be authentic and builds trust with customers because it shows that Microsoft understands their product challenges. 

In the end, it comes back to guts. Vulnerability takes courage. Dr. Brown says, “Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.” Don’t hide from what makes your brand a part of the human experience. Let your brand be seen for what it truly is. 

Britt Stromberg

Strategy Director

Britt Stromberg is the Co-Founder of States of Matter and our Director of Strategy. When you put your business and brand in her hands, she will think crazy carefully, listen to her gut, sleep on it—then do the research to be certain.

Filed under: Brand Strategy

Tagged with: brene, Brand strategy