September 7, 2021

Signs of Unpredictability

This past weekend, my wife and I walked around downtown Raleigh, North Carolina and checked out some local shops. One had a chalkboard easel outside that read, “I’m not going to make good music anymore. – Kanye.” Whether you believe Donda is garbage or a masterpiece is irrelevant. The sign made me laugh, I walked inside to Black Friday Market, and ended up purchasing two products.

Nook Neighborhood Coffee in Stockport, England received a negative review on TripAdvisor after a customer complained the porridge was overcooked. The restaurant did the right thing, offering a replacement dish and responding on TripAdvisor with a thoughtful response. But then they put this sign outside:

I don’t know about you, but if I see a sign like that on the street, I’m going in and trying the porridge. All day.

The shop’s irreverence didn’t stop there. Instead of boasting that they had the best coffee in town, they boasted that they…well, have coffee.

These signs use unpredictability to activate Broca’s Area, the part of your brain that is triggered by surprising things. You expect a brand to tell you they are the best at something, first for something, or the leader in something. You don’t expect self-deprecation. While it probably should be used in moderation, you can see how effective this brain pivot can be. Too many superlatives are far more likely to activate our BS meter.

Broca's Area

Signs like this also remind us of the power of humor and irreverence.  I immediately knew within seconds of reading the sign at Black Friday Market that I was going to have fun inside, and I did. The owner was likeable and friendly, and the store was interesting. I got the same feeling about the UK coffee shop when I found their signs online.

Irreverence, attitude, fun­­­—those are the things that give so many radio stations their brand essence. Those that already love you may already have a clear understanding of what your brand is all about. But if you’re trying to attract new listeners into the fold, just putting the same old sign out front all the time isn’t going to cut it.

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