How to say sorry when your brand’s screwed up

Brand language, Business writing

When you’re a brand, it can be tough to know how to say sorry. Brand messaging is all about being positive, so brand representatives don’t really have much practice at responding to the negative.

That can make them feel really insecure. And then they hit problems.

Making things worse

They can blame other people, like US clothing brand Lululemon’s founder Chip Wilson. Here he is responding to fabric problems that made some of their yoga pants see-through:

Quite frankly, some women’s bodies just actually don’t work. It’s about the rubbing through the thighs.

You can imagine how that went down.

Or they resort to bland, evasive corporate waffle, like Dove. They posted a Facebook ad that made it look like a black woman was turning into a white woman after using their soap. It caused massive offense. Dove replied:

An image we recently posted on Facebook missed the mark in representing women of color thoughtfully. We deeply regret the offense it caused.

It’s a classic non-apology, shifting the focus away from the problem and onto the response to it. People see straight through that sort of language. Because the problem is real but the apology isn’t, it just makes things worse.

How to say sorry

If your brand’s screwed up and you need to apologise, you need to do two very specific things:

  • Openly, honestly and directly acknowledge what’s gone wrong
  • Use the moment as a springboard for genuine, positive change

Getting it right

Sometimes, it’s very obvious what you need to apologise for.

Apple Music had that kind of problem. They were offering a three month free trial period for Apple music users. But they weren’t paying artists for music streamed during those three months.

Taylor Swift wasn’t happy about that. So she took them to task on Twitter. Where she has 83.4 million followers.

Apple Music’s Head Honcho Eddy Cue tweeted back a clear, simple response:

Apple will always make sure that artists are paid

#AppleMusic will pay artist for streaming, even during customer’s free trial period

We hear you @taylorswift13 and indie artists. Love, Apple

He didn’t actually say sorry – but then, he didn’t really need to. He’d openly and honestly acknowledged the problem and committed to fixingit. That was the apology

It could be that you’re not quite sure what’s gone wrong and you need to ask for feedback. Few brands have ever turned that kind of moment round more effectively than Naked Wines back in 2013:

It’s the same pattern – openly acknowledge the bad, then find a clear path towards the good. That’s how to say sorry and make sure people know you really mean it.

Let’s end with a masterclass from KFC, who acccidentally blew up their own supply chain. When they apologised, they did more with three letters than most people do with entire PR campaigns:

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