An apology campaign can enhance your brand’s image—but like a personal apology, it only works if you don’t mess it up.
In the olden days (say, pre-2005), when a company disappointed customers, the marketing or public relations department would mail out a media release or hastily assemble a tightly scripted press conference and then lie low until things blew over. If that didn’t work, maybe run a full-page newspaper ad, or hand out a coupon or two.
Because the company controlled its own brand image, not much creativity or effort was required to manage a dust-up.
Those days are gone. Long gone.
Today, bad news never dies, and there’s nowhere to hide online, especially on social media. Silence in the wake of a boondoggle can have dire consequences.
Velocity has never mattered more; being “on it” is an important marker of a successful marketing department today.
How fast? Really fast, according to Lithium Technologies, who claim that 72% of customers who tweet a complaint to a brand expect a response within the hour—and if the company fails to meet that timeline, 60% of those customers will use social media to call out the brand publicly (even if the activity dies down just as quickly, memories of the brand’s indignities will linger).
Candour has also become a massive sales driver: the stronger a brand’s reputation for transparency and accountability, the better it tends to perform financially.
When there’s some sort of corporate blunder—a supply chain interruption, an issue with a product ingredient, a communications fumble—leading companies act quickly: the more creative and personal you are with a multiplatform, integrated response (including Facebook engagement, video, email campaigns and ye olde media release) the better your chances of salvaging (possibly even enhancing) your brand image.*
That said, the master template for apology campaigns does not yet exist (unfortunately), because there’s no one method that works for every situation; this is compounded by fears of legal repercussions if an actual wrongdoing is admitted. But perhaps the biggest reason is that old habits are hard to break, and most companies just aren’t used to having consumers control—or even participate in—the message.
Here are some notable examples—some get it right, while others seem to struggle.
Great: O.B. Tampons’ “Triple Sorry”
When a temporary product shortage left loyal customers in the lurch in 2011, O.B. Tampons’ social media accounts were flooded with negative comments, and a petition to bring the product back amassed thousands of signatures.
The Johnson & Johnson–owned brand was quick to recognize the concerns of its customers—as well as an opportunity to leverage its customers’ brand loyalty into even deeper brand engagement.
They produced a delightfully over-the-top music video with a custom “Sorry” song, using personalization technology that enabled the recipient’s name to appear on screen and in the lyrics. They made it easily shareable. And they made it silly and sincere at the same time.
The stunt paid off: 27 million unique online visits in three months, a spot on Ellen and a PR bronze at Cannes. Some consider it the best corporate apology campaign of all time (but, remember, the field isn’t too stacked—and the issue wasn’t a matter of corporate misbehaviour, or life or death).
Good: J.C. Penney’s “It’s No Secret”
After a store redesign alienated core customers, J.C. Penney fired its CEO (former Apple retail guru Ron Johnson, whose disastrous 17-month tenure at JCP ended in $4B in losses) and rolled out a 30-second national broadcast and digital campaign practically begging its base to come back.
“It’s no secret,” the female voiceover intoned. “Recently, J.C. Penney changed. Some changes you liked, and some you didn’t. But what matters with mistakes is what we learn. We learned a very simple thing: to listen to you. To hear what you need to make your life more beautiful. Come back to J.C. Penney. We heard you. Now, we’d love to see you.”
According to The Cheat Sheet, the mea culpa seemed to work: “J.C. Penney clearly made some headway with its apology and is convincing customers it deserves another chance.”
Brand fans were won over as well. “As an active investor in this company, I found hope in this simple video,” one YouTube commenter wrote.
Mixed response: Telus’s #expectmore
Telus’s 2015 #expectmore campaign, which alternated customers’ compliments and complaints with an explanatory “sorry for past poor service,” is a good example of a company trying to meet consumer expectations for brand authenticity and responsiveness.
While #expectmore was an interesting attempt to “humanize the conversation,” as Telus describes it, it also highlights how wooden and awkward apologizing can sound when it comes from a corporate entity.
Promising to listen and respond was a great start, but with retweets that included #shittycustomerservice, #boycott and #getless, the public’s cynical side started to show. The YouTube component of the campaign, which showed videos of angry customer tweets being read aloud, seemed to draw the most ire, garnering comments such as “this is like saying, ‘screw you.’ Just saying” and “the ad itself is insulting.”
Mixed response: Domino’s Pizza’s “Our Pizza Sucks”
Using unprecedented candour, Domino’s got tons of attention with its audacious “Pizza Turnaround” campaign in 2010 (which came on the heels of another apology, for gross online videos of staff misbehaviours with the food).
These ads aimed to highlight Domino’s Pizza’s commitment and transparency by disclosing brutal focus-group feedback about the product—subjects saying the crust tasted like “cardboard” and sauce like “ketchup”— and detail the company’s two-year, multi-million-dollar improvement efforts.
Gawker called it advertising gold, describing the company’s admission of its flaws as “movingly accurate.”
But not all industry experts deemed the campaign a success. Over at Slate, Seth Stevenson declared the ads “weird,” and Bob Garfield, writing in Ad Age, felt the dangers of the campaign outweighed the potential rewards, claiming the mea culpa took it too far (and ran the risk of alienating existing customers, who could resent being told they had terrible taste in pizza). “Something banal along the lines of ‘tangy new crust, bold new flavor’ might have done the trick just fine,” he wrote.
Sorry (not sorry): Hans Brinker’s “Sorry …”
This Amsterdam budget hotel is famous in adland for their decades-long use of self-deprecating marketing campaigns that emphasize how low-end the hotel is (their brand positioning is, after all, “the worst hotel in the world”), with headlines such as “Sorry for not being wonderful at welcoming you” and “Sorry for being the best at ignoring your complaints.”
Not every brand has the personality to pull off such cheekiness, but it’s been remarkably successful in promoting the property (and now a sister property in Lisbon). The results speak for themselves, as Angharad Lewis writes in Grafik: “Apart from courting admiration and controversy in equal measure in the press, the ongoing … campaign has succeeded on a business level for the Hans Brinker, tripling room bookings and making it a stalwart of the budget travel game.”
The global firm TrendWatching has characterized this new consumer appetite for honesty as a penchant for the “flawsome,” describing “winning brands” as those “that show some empathy, generosity, humility, flexibility, maturity, humor and dare we say it, some character and humanity.”
Epic fail: Bloomingdale’s response to its creepy holiday catalogue
“Spike your best friend’s eggnog when they’re not looking,” suggested the troubling page in the Bloomingdale’s 2015 holiday catalogue.
Outrage—the internet’s high-octane fuel—propelled this image around the web in record time last November, generating a ton of negative media coverage and calls for an apology.
Bloomingdale’s response? A robotic, 1985-style corporate statement:
“In reflection of recent feedback, the copy we used in our recent catalogue was inappropriate and in poor taste. Bloomingdale’s sincerely apologizes.”
Predictably, this boilerplate sentiment did nothing to quell social media outrage: in fact, it made consumers even angrier, and now they had another misstep to criticize.
The pile-on began, with users calling for the retailer to make a donation to organizations that help victims of sexual assault. Bloomingdale’s once again took the approach of yesteryear, ignoring the situation and hoping it would blow over. Facebook and Twitter comments such as “beautiful women roofied and date raped! Just how Bloomingdales likes it!”, “the boycott is on!” and “#Bloomingdalepromotesrape” were ignored (at the same time as service complaints were regularly addressed).
As Aj Agrawal stated, writing for Inc., “With annual sales over $2 billion, I guess a written apology and a tweet saying you’re sorry just doesn’t cut it.”
Eventually, of course, everything blows over on social media. But Bloomingdale’s brand reputation suffered needlessly, the company revealed internal and external communications weaknesses and it missed a golden opportunity to show its responsiveness and creativity, and earn positive PR in the process.
*We aren’t talking about crisis communications here (for potentially catastrophic, business-killing errors, much more than a campaign is required); rather, our focus is on run-of-the-mill problems that happen regularly for many businesses.
Money or a personal apology: What’s the best way to right a wrong?
It’s long been known that brands can build deeper trust and engagement with customers if they have a chance to right a wrong, rather than if they never make a mistake.
Smart companies are now looking at the way you right the wrong, in the hopes of understanding what’s going to make a bigger impact.
Case in point: Moz.com highlights a case study of an online bridal store with a high-volume shipping business, which means they occasionally make a mistake on orders. To apologize for these mistakes, they looked at two options and did some split testing. One group of customers received a $50 gift card to apologize for a mix-up, while a second group received a personal telephone call to apologize.
Afterward, the company followed up with each group to inquire about the likelihood of future purchases.
The group that received a personal apology was twice as likely to say they would buy from them again—a point that’s of particular interest to the online channel, because without a bricks-and-mortar customer service counter, an opportunity to have a human-to-human conversation is still more meaningful to customers.