FCK ‘em If They Can’t Take a Joke: The Art of the Brand Apology

by Kelly Sarabyn

“My new goal is not to explain jokes.” In 2015, the Internet’s mob mentality trained its ire on Tina Fey, demanding an apology for a perceived racist joke written into The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Fey not only dismissed the accusations, but lamented the way social media has resulted in a culture that is constantly demanding public apologies. Fans won’t find her on any social network: “There’s a real culture of demanding apologies, and I’m opting out of that.”

In today’s era of public accountings, brands are routinely subject to this same social media outrage — but they rarely have the luxury of not responding. Social media mobs are feared for their well-documented willingness to conduct public trial by internet. No one could accuse them of nuance, with their Gaston-like fervor for targets ranging from true villains like Harvey Weinstein to brands who tweet an off-color joke (Chrysler: “I find it ironic Detroit is known as the #motorcity and yet no one here knows how to fucking drive.”)

Brands that seek genuine relationships with their audience must be able to master the challenges posed by this environment, be able to differentiate between a real transgression and social media noise, and navigate how to deliver an apology that turns a misstep into opportunity.

This reckoning has been amplified in the era of #metoo, where one powerful man after another has fallen under the scrutiny of angry online crowds. The success of this movement in soliciting apologies from (most of) the publicly accused perpetrators of sexual assault has been a net positive, but the online outrage did not stop with the powerful men committing these wrongs. Criticism extended to people who opined on the #metoo movement in what was perceived as a demeaning way, such as Matt Damon, and Catherine Deneuve.

Damon’s half-baked apology — “I don’t want to further anybody’s pain with anything that I do or say. So for that I am really sorry.” — certainly didn’t appease those who were outraged by (or those who agreed with) his original comments. The mob moved on, but the lasting negative impact to Damon’s reputation is a cautionary tale to brands: when the mob mentality determines who is worthy of scorn, an authentic response is more important than ever.

Mercedes-Benz recently offered what was widely perceived as an inauthentic apology for “hurting the feelings” of the Chinese people after posting a Dalai Lama quote about the value of looking at situations from different perspectives. Few believed that Mercedes was genuinely sorry for posting the quote or believed their claim that the post contained “extremely erroneous information.” While this kowtowing may have mollified online crowds in China, it damaged Mercedes’ reputation with most of the world.

Research has shown there are six elements to an effective apology, but the two most important are an authentic acknowledgement of responsibility, and making an offer of repair. Harvey Weinstein might have intuited he needed to try to repair his wrongs, but his meandering apology that discussed his intentions to take down the NRA, instead of coming up with remotely credible compensation, indicated he had no comprehension of the gravity of systemically sexually harassing women in the workplace. The same can be said for brands who commit grievous wrongs — paltry offers of repair are more offensive than beneficial. Ask Chevron, who was appropriately lambasted in 2014 for mailing members of a Pennsylvania town pizza coupons after an explosion at one of its natural gas wells killed a young worker.

The latest research shows that brands have become increasingly humanized — as a result, they are equally subject to critical online crowds, and, to avoid losing customers and brand equity, they need to engage as authentically and credibly as individuals.

The many failed public apologies in the #metoo movement illustrates the difficulty of offering authentic and believable apologies, especially if the underlying wrongs were grievous. Brands are no exception to this. Chipotle, for example, floundered their public apologies after serving food contaminated with E. Coli and norovirus, resulting in hundreds of sick patrons.

Despite an immediate and widespread outrage against the company, CEO Steve Ellis waited five weeks for an extensive apology tour. Even with the time lapse, Ellis still hadn’t identified nor solved what had caused the E. Coli outbreak. As Yale School of Management Associate Dean John Sonnenfield commented, “[The apology is] not enough and it was late … it’s false reassurance to go out there and say ‘well, we fixed it’ when you don’t even know what is wrong yet.”

In the apology ad taken out in 61 publications, not only did Ellis fail to explain how the outbreaks had happened or what Chipotle did wrong, he insisted Chipotle “met or exceeded industry standards” for safety, and its “restaurants are safer now than they had even been.” This is hardly reassuring to consumers witnessing widespread E. Coli and norovirus’ outbreaks, and undermines the credibility of Ellis’s claims that he would implement practices and procedures to make the risk of further outbreaks “near zero.”

People respond to vulnerability. For a brand to effectively say “sorry” requires the self-awareness of genuinely recognizing where it went wrong, and what it can do better. Chipotle drew further attention to its lack of honest self-criticism with its attempt to court lost patrons by offering them free burritos — hardly compelling compensation for making people ill with burritos.

This cloying effort at rectification rang hollow — and inauthentic. Chipotle’s brand is about disrupting the fast food space by offering healthy and wholesome food. Off-brand free coupons were inconsistent with a brand whose customers embraced a higher price point in exchange for quality — the same customers were aggravated by Chipotle’s attempt to woo them back by engaging in “base humor” on its Twitter account. Joking about marijuana and sexual “side pieces” on Twitter, and offering free burritos to customers who had fled because of concerns about food quality left consumers wondering who Chipotle was, and what they stood for.

Despite their stock price and public perception getting hammered, Chipotle’s lack of self-awareness continued when, in 2017, they repeated the same mistakes. Another illness broke out in one of its restaurants; instead of immediately addressing the issue, Chipotle ignored people tweeting about the incident, and continued to blithely tweet out promotional deals.

 

How Brands Can Effectively Apologize

In 2007, JetBlue bet wrong on an East Coast ice storm that left tens of thousands of passengers stranded. While competitor airlines cancelled flights well in advance, JetBlue tried to preserve service; when the storm intensified, staff, equipment and passengers were stranded in a mess that took over a week to sort out.

JetBlue is a brand with a well-defined story, and they leaned into it to execute a successful on-brand apology. Rather than waiting five weeks like Chipotle, JetBlue CEO David G. Neeleman immediately publicly apologized. Not only that, he took full responsibility for the delays and cancellations, explaining exactly how they had happened, and why JetBlue was to blame: Neeleman was transparent, authentic and genuine about his role in the crisis.

Not only did JetBlue take responsibility — in a credible way, by explaining how they were at fault — they immediately offered to repair the wrong by giving substantial compensation to everyone affected, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars. The company also published a “Customer Bill of Rights” which ensured that any future passengers with a delay or cancellation would be fairly compensated. This generous remediation was perfectly on-brand for a company that had built its reputation on superior customer service.

With its authentic apology offered in multiple media outlets and on YouTube, JetBlue was able to restore and even enhance its brand reputation, as consumers responded positively to their transparency and aggressive attempt to make amends. The generous compensation also lent credibility to JetBlue’s assurances that they would reorganize their workforce and update their technology to ensure the same problems wouldn’t happen in the future.

 

Being True to Brand

Most brands will never issue an apology that costs millions of dollars. But not all authentic apologies have to be expensive. KFC recently had to temporarily shutter two thirds of their stores in the UK due to a chicken shortage that arose when they altered their supply chain. In response to the store closings, #KFCCrisis was quickly trending on Twitter. KFC took complete responsibility for their mistake, but did so in a way that was reflective of the fact that it was just a minor inconvenience to would-be patrons, and embodied their irreverent, fun brand personality.

They took out an ad with the word “FCK” on a bucket of their chicken, with the text below, “WE’RE SORRY. A chicken restaurant without any chicken. It’s not ideal. Huge apologies to our customers … It’s been a hell of week, but we’re making progress, and every day, more and more fresh chicken is being delivered to our restaurants. Thank you for bearing with us.”

This cheeky but sincere apology was quickly trending on Twitter, with people who didn’t even like KFC applauding the brand. The genuine expression of vulnerability, and the relatable “FCK” gave credibility to KFC’s promise that they were fixing the problem as soon as possible. The success of KFC’s apology highlights the importance of a brand evincing their own distinct story and personality in their apologies — and a reminder that despite what the online mobs say, not all crises should be dealt with at the same volume.

Brands must accept they live in a moment where public reckonings happen at the speed a tweet. The #metoo movement illustrates the perils of inauthentic or hedged apologies; they only bring further derision. Brands are not immune from the justice of online crowds, and they need to be prepared to respond quickly and credibly in order to protect their hard-earned brand equity. The success of movements like #metoo, and the increased humanization of brands, will only increase the public’s appetite for demanding accountability in this manner. But, by knowing who they really are, and what they stand for, brands can offer authentic apologies that resonate even in a world where people have 140-word attention spans.

Kelly Sarabyn is a manager at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, Woden can help. Download our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at connect@wodenworks.com to discuss how we can help tell your story.