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:

How to stop writing

Business writing, The process, Writing

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

Sometimes the biggest challenge is knowing when to stop writing. It’s easy – and so frustrating – to find yourself spending ages on a document, going back over it again and again, adding more and more to make sure that absolutely everything essential is in there.

That can be a surprisingly simple problem to solve.

Understanding the journey

Writing anything is a journey – and it’s very easy to start a journey. Take a couple of steps and you’re off. But if you want to have a good journey, you need to know where you’re going and why you need to get there, so you can plot the right route and take the right supplies with you.

And of course if you don’t know what your destination is, you run into a very big problem. You’ll never be quite sure when you’ve arrived. And even if you do feel like you’ve reached somewhere that’s sort of like where you think you’d want to be, you won’t be ready to make the most of it.

So, you’ll probably keep moving forever. And that’s not because the place you need to get to doesn’t exist – it’s because you haven’t given yourself the tools you need to recognise it when you reach it.

Defining your destination

If you want to know when you’ve finished a document, you need to understand what finishing it will look like. Before you start off you should write yourself a brief, outlining:

  • Who you’re talking to and why they should care
  • What they should know, feel and do differently after they’ve read your doc
  • What you need to tell them to make that change happen
  • How you should talk to them to reach them most efficiently

Once you’ve done that, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what needs to be in your finished document. With the destination so clearly defined, you’ll know exactly when you’ve reached the end of your journey. And then you can settle down and reward yourself with a cup of tea and a biscuit.

And as you sit there, exhausted but content, your mind will probably wander. Perhaps you’ll think about all the previous journeys you’ve been on and all the future journeys you might take. And that will give you one last way of knowing you’ve completed this particular journey.

Seeing the bigger picture

Each piece of writing’s a journey in its own right. But it’s also always just one part of a wider, deeper, ongoing conversation with your audience. So, when you’re deciding whether or not you’ve completed a document, always think about that bigger voyage too.

Look back on what your audience already knows. Think about what they might find out in the future. Understanding that will help you finally complete the journey of writing your current document, because it’ll reassure you that you don’t need to tell them absolutely everything, all at once – you only need to tell them what they need to hear right now, at this particular moment.

Sizzle your way to better brand language

Brand language, Branding, Business writing

So we were down at the Garden Centre the other day, buying a goldfish. That was a lot of fun – but for me, the really exciting part of the trip was finding issue 4 of Weber’s ‘Grill On’ barbecue magazine, because their brand language is fantastic.

We have two Weber barbecues – a big gas one and a little charcoal one – and we’re basically barbecue nuts. At the end of a hard day, few things are more relaxing than standing out in the back garden with a cold drink and something delicious sizzling on the grill.

And Weber have transformed what we barbecue and how we barbecue it, because they understand the real purpose of brand language. The best brand writing doesn’t tell, it shows. It helps people understand how wonderful your brand is by showing them how to get the most out of what it does.

Weber’s awesome cookbooks

Weber do that really well. They even publish cookbooks – we have their complete barbecue book and smoking guide. Both are fantastically informative, including deep dives into barbecue theory and practice, all-purpose grilling tips and tricks and of course a small mountain of delicious recipes.

Those books contain some of the most practical, informative food writing I’ve ever read. Weber’s content strategy turns their barbecuing expertise into useful, practical guidance that transforms their users’ brand experience. They pretty much guarantee that you’ll get the best out of your Weber kit.

Oh, and the ‘Grill On’ magazine is excellent too. It’s basically the Weber catalogue – but before you get to any product info, you have fifty six beautifully designed and written pages of barbecue recipes, grilling science and practical info. It’s a great read.

But what’s in it for Weber?

All that content’s great for the Weber barbecuer, because it brings the whole process to life in a way that’s practically, positively relevant to them. After all, they’re the ones paying good money for Weber kit. They have every right to all the help and support the brand can give.

And of course people who know how to get the most out of a brand automatically become excellent ambassadors for it. Whenever anyone sees them using it, they see high quality results achieved in a confident, purposeful way. What’s not to like?

Then they start talking about it.

You’ve had a sample of me raving about Weber above. If we were chatting face-to-face, I’d probably have pulled one of the books off the shelf to show you. You might also be munching away on a delicious recipe from it. So you’d probably end up feeling pretty positive about Weber barbecues.

The big brand language question

That’s what good content does. And it all goes to show the most important question to ask yourself when you’re writing for your own brand. It’s not:

  • How do we tell people how awesome we are?

Instead, ask yourself:

  • How do we help people do awesome things?

Then you’ll be on to a winner.

So why do we need tone of voice anyway?

Branding, Business writing, Tone of Voice, Writing

Well, you can answer that in three words:

Dick Van Dyke

If you’re not British, you probably know him as a tremendously versatile actor and light entertainer who’s still hoofing it up in his 90s. But if you are a Brit, when you hear his name you’ll probably mutter something like ‘Gorblimey Mary Poppins’ in a tremendously bad cockney accent, then wince.

And for us Brits, his disastrous attempt to sound cockney in ‘Mary Poppins’ gets in the way of everything else about him. It completely overwrites his all-singing, all-dancing, utterly charming performance in the film. And it’s overwritten much of the rest of his career too.

Poor tone of voice turned Dick Van Dyke from a comedian into a joke.

Wincing at slogans

The need for good tone of voice struck me again on a recent anti-Brexit march. I think Brexit is a big mistake. So I want to change the minds of people who are pro-Brexit. And so, every time I heard or read the slogan ‘Bollocks to Brexit’, I winced.

Of course, the slogan’s core message – ‘we think Brexit’s a bad idea’ – is entirely sound. It’s a great starting point for a conversation, leading naturally into ‘…let’s talk about why that is’. But its tone is aggressive and patronising. So it repels the pro-Brexiteers it most needs to convince.

Poor tone of voice alienates the very people you need to reach out to.

Reaching the right people

Tone of voice isn’t just about the big public messages. It can have very subtle impacts too. For example, small changes in tone can make a big difference when you’re recruiting. Certain words stop people from even applying for a particular job – here’s a fascinating article on how that works.

Getting job ad tone right increases diversity, which, because (according to McKinsey) companies with more diverse teams are 33% more likely to outperform their peers, increases profitability. How you use language can have a real, measurable impact on your business’ bottom line.

Good tone of voice boosts your business by bringing the right people closer to you.

Evoking the best of you

And of course some brands have fantastic tone of voice. First Direct are my own favourite example. I bank with them, so over the years I’ve had a lot of communications from them. Almost without exception they’ve been easy to understand, practically useful and just the right kind of friendly.

Put more technically, their communications deliver both rational and emotional benefits. And because they so precisely embody the First Direct brand, even the shortest note from them both reminds me of and reinforces all the good experiences I’ve had with them over the years.

Good tone of voice evokes everything your customers love about your brand.

So why do we need tone of voice?

We all need tone of voice because it shapes how we choose words, and the words we choose shape our brands and define our businesses in the minds and hearts of everyone they touch.

The Golden Secret of good writing

Business writing, Clients, The process, Writing

Someone who knows the Golden Secret using it to do some good writing

Photo by picjumbo.com from Pexels

Yesterday Andy White interviewed me for SiteVisibility‘s weekly Internet Marketing Podcast. We talked about ‘Bringing your brand to life with words’. Our chat ended with a fascinating question about good writing. Andy asked:

‘What’s the one bit of advice you’d give to to help anyone write more effectively?’

I had to stop and think for a moment. Writing’s a very personal thing, so any advice or training I give tends to be very personally tailored. But there is one thing that’s absolutely central to all good writing. And it’ll help you build stronger, deeper relationships with your customers and clients too.

Revealing the Golden Secret

‘Write what your audience needs to hear, not what you need to tell them.’

It’s a very important point. It means building your communication around the person you’re reaching out to. It means thinking about who they are, why they need to hear from you, what you need to tell them and how you’re going to talk with them – all the essentials of good writing.

It also makes the process of writing much easier. It helps you work out what you need to put into your communication, what you can leave out (usually, quite a lot!) and how you’re going to structure it all. And it gives you a very useful yardstick to edit against.

The worst ever question

Most importantly, it makes your writing much more effective. It will help you avoid the single worst response any communication can spark:

‘So what?’

If you build your writing around what your audience needs to hear, they’ll never have to ask that question. That’s because every single one of your communications will solve a specific problem for them, or give them a vital piece of information, or make life easier for them in some other way.

Testing out the Golden Secret

It’s very easy to test it out. Just think about all the written communications you’ve received in the last few days. I’m sure some of them have been fantastic and some of them – well, not so much.

Pick out a really good communication and a really awful one. Read them again with the Golden Secret in mind. My bet is that the really good one will feel like it’s written for and talking to you personally. And the terrible one will feel at best completely generic and at worst totally irrelevant.

Better writing builds stronger relationships

Think about how each one makes you feel. I’m sure the good one will leave you with a lovely glow of good feelings about whoever’s written to you. And the bad one will probably make you feel a bit fed up, if not actively annoyed.

And that’s the final point about the Golden Secret. It’s not just about good writing. It’ll help you build stronger relationships with your clients or your customers, because it helps you show them that you put them at the heart of everything you do.

Why business writing should come from the heart

Branding, Business writing, Emotion, Tone of Voice

There’s a comment that often comes up when I’m training B2B communicators in better business writing. It usually happens when I say something along the lines of: ‘To write well, you have to think about what your audience are feeling as much as what you’re telling them’.

And when I say that, someone usually replies with something like: ‘Ah, but we’re not fluffy and consumer. We’re all about business to business. Everything we do is all about being as rational as possible. So we really don’t need to worry about the emotional side of things when we’re writing.’

I’ve had that comment from finance people, technical types, insurers, charity managers – just about anyone you can imagine. And there’s a specific story I always tell in response to it, from psychiatrist Antonio Damasio’s excellent book on how our brains work: ‘The Feeling of What Happens’.

Where facts can’t go

Damasio describes how one patients suffered a traumatic brain injury that turned off the emotional part of his mind, leaving him unable to feel. All he could do was reason.

And instead of turning him into some Spock-like genius, one who – unhampered by the confusing distractions of emotion – ended up secretly ruling the world, or at least doing pretty well within some important part of it, it broke him. He found making even the simplest decisions impossible.

That’s because he only had reason to rely on. And reason deals in firm, hard facts. And most of the time there aren’t enough firm, hard facts available to know whether or not you’re making the right choice.

Damasio’s patient couldn’t even decide what colour socks to put on in the morning, because he had no way of knowing for sure how the choice of either one might affect his day.

So what do you really feel?

Damasio uses that story to make the point that we decide by feeling as much as thinking.

Reason helps us deal with what we know will happen. But we can’t know everything. So emotion – lovely, fuzzy emotion – helps us fill in the gaps, feeling our way through all the vaguenesses and uncertainties of life, and reacting accordingly. It’s a fundamental part of being human.

And every piece of business writing is written by a human for a human. And that human audience makes his or her decisions by feeling as much as by thinking, because that’s how we’re built. That’s how we make our minds up. That’s who we are.

So, no matter how rational a piece of business writing you’re working on, you always need to stop and work out how you want it to make your audience feel. Because they’re another human, just like you, so how you make them feel is just as important as what you make them think.