Brand apologies in the human era

Volkswagen CEO Herbert Diess.
Volkswagen CEO Herbert Diess.

Candor is critical to good business in the age of the empowered consumer, stresses Lippincott's senior partner, design

How far we’ve come from the communications style of guarded talking points and boilerplate responses, of deflecting investigations and withholding damaging information. In what we call a more "Human Era" of empowered customers, who readily judge companies on values beyond product or service quality, candor is good business.

Human Era brands understand this, reflecting a broader shift in the way that businesses interact with their customers. Which is to say, they’re casting aside corporate veneers and crafty ploys in favor of opening up to show us their real, sometimes imperfect, selves. They get that their behavior across a range of critical moments — from "Hello," to "Buy me," to "I’m sorry," — is what truly defines character. And that the way in which an apology is conveyed says a lot about one’s culture and values. It can mean the difference between showing that you’re in tune with the surrounding world versus coming off as defensive and lacking the integrity to fully own up to a problem.

There’s no need to recount here the many instances of companies that, in confronting a crisis demanding an apology, didn’t come close to turning a negative into a positive. More often than not, they were slow on the uptake — stubbornly determined to take limited action and exercise damage control rather than expeditiously coming clean with customers. This can result in the dreaded "recall creep," in which executives hope that taking minimal steps will solve a problem, only to find themselves forced to announce additional recalls.

In this context, one can trace the Human Era apology back to Johnson & Johnson’s handling of the 1982 Tylenol tampering crisis, when the brand, by swiftly recalling every bottle of the pain reliever from store shelves, famously put the safety of its customers ahead of salvaging profits.

So in highlighting principles of the Human Era apology, there’s perhaps no better place to start than with a distillation of the Tylenol-recall lesson:

The greater good is good for your brand
In December 2014, Snoqualmie Gourmet Ice Cream immediately shut down all production and issued a recall for all of the ice cream it had made in 2014, after product samples tested positive for listeria. Snoqualmie co-owner Barry Bettinger didn’t offer excuses or go on about his company and its commitment to excellence. He focused instead on his employees and customers, voicing concern over anyone potentially becoming sick from his ice cream and inviting public health officials in to provide guidance and oversight in fixing the problem.

Customers are reasonable if you speak with reason
A loyal and engaged customer base can quickly turn activist when profit comes before service. Case in point: Netflix’s 2011 announcement of a new business strategy, including a planned price increase, drew wrath from customers and investors alike — crashing the company’s stock price and resulting in the loss of 800,000 subscribers. Responding to the backlash, Netflix CEO Reed Hasting used his apology to explain the reasoning behind the decision and how it would allow his company to improve its offerings and avoid the fate of other competitors. Ultimately acquiescing to the price increase, customers were quick to forgive, if not forget, the incident. In a moment of weakness, Netflix turned its apology into an opportunity to articulate its vision for the future and its commitment to improving customer satisfaction.

Actions speak louder than words
From management to the front line, Human Era brands go beyond paying lip service to being customer driven. Their cultures empower employees to put the customer first, even in moments of crisis. In 2007, after a major travel snarl stranded JetBlue passengers on a plane for 11 hours, the company saw an opportunity to differentiate itself from its mainstream competition. It created a "Customer Bill of Rights" that included a compensation plan for JetBlue travelers based on the length of delays they experienced. Besides reaffirming a customer-centric commitment, JetBlue was able to embrace a moment of crisis and bring some humanity back into air travel.

There is a time and a place for humor
Friends don’t speak to each other through lawyers. Nor do they look for loopholes to avoid taking responsibility. When Arby’s last year failed to promote Pepsi in its advertising campaign, as contractually obliged, it was able to save face with a playful apology. Arby’s created a simple yet unconventional ad featuring a single shot of iced Pepsi accompanied by a Ving Rhames voiceover, in which Arby’s apologized for the oversight. The ad aired on TV and was uploaded to the company’s YouTube channel. The caption: "We love you Pepsi. You’re like a meat to us." By acting like a friend, and owning up to their mistake, Arby’s was able to avoid a legal airing of dirty laundry, while sharing a smile with both Pepsi and its customers.

In the Human Era, brands are allowed to make mistakes. Viewed as an opportunity, apologies offer a chance to reaffirm values and brand personality. So seize the moment. This is a time when people are actually listening and watching.

Brendan Murphy is senior partner, design, with Lippincott.

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