Your customers don't expect perfection, but they might appreciate an apology.
Creativity Creative Thinking

When and How Should Brands Apologize?


Nobody is perfect. Neither is any brand. And there’s power in admitting that.

Years ago, I received a greeting card in the mail. The front of the card featured a picture of roses and simply said, “I’m sorry. I messed up. Please forgive me. I’ll do better, I promise.”

I was both confused and curious as I tried to figure out which family member or friend might have sent it. I hadn’t been in any recent arguments with anyone close to me, at least none that called for such a grand gesture.

When I opened it, I was surprised to find a message from my former internet provider, with whom I had recently canceled my less-than-stellar service. The card apologized for whatever had caused me to leave the company, asked for feedback about how the relationship could have been better, and offered a discounted rate if I came back.

It was simple but brilliant, and even a little humorous. So, while I didn’t go back to this provider immediately, I did eventually give them a second chance. And I have never forgotten that card.

In relationships—both with loved ones and customers—the willingness to admit when you goof up and to apologize for any hard feelings is endearing and refreshing. It shows humility and puts a human face on your brand, which can help forge an even deeper emotional connection with your audience.

There’s Strength in Revealing Your Weaknesses

Think about it: With whom do you feel a stronger emotional connection? People who spend their time telling you how great they are and trying to seem “perfect” or those who embrace their imperfections, own up to their mistakes, and demonstrate a genuine effort to become better?

The first group of people not only seem arrogant, but it’s impossible to relate to perfection, because we all know it doesn’t exist. But screwing up and then learning from our mistakes? That’s something everyone has experienced.

As Brené Brown—author of Daring Greatly and creator of the popular TED Talk, “The Power of Vulnerability“—puts it: “Vulnerability is the birthplace of connection and the path to the feeling of worthiness. If it doesn’t feel vulnerable, the sharing is probably not constructive.”

Of course, there are plenty of ways brand marketers can demonstrate both vulnerability and humility—from using a little self-deprecating humor, to creating brand storytelling campaigns that aren’t about the brand at all, instead putting other people’s stories front and center.

And apologizing—like you really mean it—is one of the most powerful ways to say, “I know I’m not perfect. I’m only human, but I want to be better, to be someone worthy of your love and loyalty.”

It’s not only a way to repair trust, but to earn it.

The Anatomy of an Apology

My mother had a lot of sayings that frustrated me as a child. One was “Sorry doesn’t fix it.”

This particular saying was reserved for moments when I knew she was mad at me and offered a generic, “I’m sorry, Mama,” hoping to get back in her good graces.

I remember being confused by this. I knew I was supposed to apologize, so if “sorry” didn’t fix it, what would? Talk about a rock and a hard place.

I eventually learned that “I’m sorry” wasn’t enough; for my apology to be effective, it needed to be specific. She wanted to know that I understood exactly what I’d done wrong, why it was wrong, how it had made her feel, and why I would never do it again.

Yes, apologizing to my mother was a lot of work. But as it turns out, she was teaching me a powerful lesson.

Psychologists have now defined what makes for an effective apology, and my mother anticipated pretty much every component. According to a recent study, which appeared in the May issue of Negotiation and Conflict Management Research, there are six components of a good apology:

1. Expression of regret
2. Explanation of what went wrong
3. Acknowledgment of responsibility
4. Declaration of repentance
5. Offer of repair
6. Request for forgiveness

Every apology doesn’t have to include all six components to be effective, according to the researchers, but the more components apologizers touch on, the bigger impact they make on their audiences. The most important components, however, are to accept responsibility and offer a repair.

Psychoanalyst, Robert M. Gordon, agrees. In his TED Talk, “The Power of an Apology,” he lists three main elements of a proper “I’m sorry”:

1. Acknowledgement
2. Remorse and empathy
3. Restitution

He also adds that an apology should be “dose appropriate.” For example, if you bump into someone in a crowded room, a simple acknowledgment will probably suffice. You don’t need to prove you understand how bumping into that person hurt his/her feelings or offer restitution.

This is an important point for content marketers crafting apology campaigns. Not every mistake even requires an apology. In some cases, a simple “I’m sorry” will do. And in others, you better pull out all the stops—and do it quickly—or risking losing public trust forever.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: 3 Mistakes, 3 Appropriate Apologies

1. Sorry we sent you the wrong email.

Who hasn’t sent the wrong email to the wrong person, forgot to add the attachment, or goofed up digital communication in some other way? We don’t expect email perfection from our friends and colleagues, so we probably won’t get too bent out of shape when marketers mess up either.

Still, a simple apology isn’t a bad idea. For example, I like this one from Fab, which the retailer sent out to all its subscribers after accidentally blasting a “[TEST] PM Tracking Test” email with a picture of a cat:


Fab apology email

It accepts responsibility, explains what went wrong, and offers restitution in the form of a limited-time discount. Given the offense, that’s probably more than enough.

2. Sorry our website sucks.

Sending the wrong email isn’t such a big deal, but failing to provide a good user experience could actually cost a brand some customers. So, an apology is definitely in order.

When Picturehouse Cinemas changed up its online ticket purchasing system last year, the arthouse theater chain received lots of negative feedback from frustrated users. In response, the company sent the following email:

Picturehouse Cinemas Apology Email

This email hit five of the six apology components, all but “request for forgiveness,” which the researchers noted was least important anyway.

My favorite apology campaign for a subpar user experience is a 2014 video from Hootsuite, acknowledging the shortcomings of its user experience in a Jimmy-Kimmel-inspired “Mean Tweets” video:

The video takes a more humorous tone than Picturehouse Cinema’s apology, but it still makes its point: “We know we screwed up, and we’re going to fix it.”

3. Sorry we violated your trust and/or caused you harm.

On the list of transgressions that require corporate apologies, the two deadliest sins are probably dishonesty and negligence. Whether that’s outright lying about a product or somehow putting the public at risk—i.e., customer-data breaches, product safety recalls, selling contaminated food—these situations call for quick action and heartfelt apologies. Dodging blame, scapegoating, or going heavy on the PR-speak will only further alienate customers.

There are lots of great examples of what NOT to do—in business and in politics. But recently, two CEOs have stepped up to the plate, accepted full responsibility for wrongdoings, and apologized like pros.

When an Amtrack train crashed in Philadelphia last May, killing eight people and injuring more than 200 others, the company’s CEO, Joe Boardman, showed up at the scene, attended memorial services for the victims, made himself available for media interviews, and issued a heartfelt message that sounded like a genuinely-sorry human being wrote it, not a team of lawyers and PR reps.

And when Volkswagen came under fire last fall for using a device on certain diesel vehicles that fooled regulators into recording low emissions values, the automobile manufacturer acted swiftly. After immediately issuing a video statement that hit most of the components of an effective apology, CEO Martin Winterkorn resigned from his position.

The company also placed full-page ads in newspapers around the world, apologizing and offering restitution. In the US, for example, ads in more than 30 newspaper promised: “We’re working to make things right.” And while Volkswagen was still figuring out a solution to the problem, it offered the owners of all affected cars a $500 Visa gift card, an additional $500 gift card toward the purchase of a new Volkswagen, and three years of free roadside assistance.

Bottom line: The bigger the goof-up, the bigger the apology should be. And while “sorry doesn’t always fix it,” an apology does go a long way toward helping customers forgive, if not forget, your mistake.

Done right, an apology might even help your audience feel closer to your brand. After all, no one’s perfect, so there’s no point in pretending to be.

To learn more about making an emotional connection via brand storytelling, subscribe to Content Standard updates.

Taylor Mallory Holland is a freelance writer, editor, and content marketer specializing in technology, healthcare, and business leadership. As a content strategist, Holland contributes thought leadership content for some of the world's top brands, including Samsung, IBM, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, and UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine. She has been a contributor for The Content Standard since 2014.

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