Under the Influence

When Brands Apologize: Sorry Seems To Be The Smartest Word

Get this episode from This week, we explore when companies apologize. Over the lifetime of a company, mistakes happen. When those mistakes cause damage, it is not inappropriate for a brand to apologize. Yet, it rarely happens. This week, we look at the companies that chose to apologize: From O.B. Tampons, who apologized to their customers with a song,...
Get this episode from Under The Influence: When Brands Apologize: Sorry Seems To Be The Smartest Word (Season 1, Episode 19) - EP - CBC Radio

This week, we explore when companies apologize. Over the lifetime of a company, mistakes happen. When those mistakes cause damage, it is not inappropriate for a brand to apologize. Yet, it rarely happens. This week, we look at the companies that chose to apologize: From O.B. Tampons, who apologized to their customers with a song, to Dominos Pizza, who was forced to apologize when employees made an embarrassing YouTube video, to Maple Leaf Foods, whose CEO apologized to the families of people who had died from contaminated food. If an apology is genuine and timely, sorry is definitely the smartest word.

In 2008, comedian Russell Brand was hosting his weekly radio show on the BBC, along with radio and television personality Jonathan Ross.

russell brand.jpg
Russell Brand Source: celebrity.de

Jonathan Ross.jpg
Jonathan Ross Source: guardian.co.uk

Brand was scheduled to do an interview with actor Andrew Sachs, who had played Manuel on the famous Fawlty Towers television comedy series.

Andrew Sachs.jpg
Actor Andrew Sachs Source: telegraph.co.uk

As the show began, Brand announced that "What Andrew doesn't know is, I've slept with his granddaughter."

When Brand called Sachs on the phone, Sachs wasn't home. So Brand and Ross left him four messages.

In the first message, as Brand talks about how he and Sachs appeared in the same British TV series, Ross yells out something obscene:

Source: YouTube

The incident didn't cause waves at first. But the next day, the Mail on Sunday wrote a story about it on their front page, saying Brand and Ross could face legal ramifications for the calls.

Daily Mail front page.jpg

Three days later, the BBC had received 4,700 complaints. Soon, the number had passed 10,000. Eight days later, the complaints topped 38,000.

The Director-General of the BBC then announced that Brand and Ross had been suspended, pending an investigation. He also offered Andrew Sachs and his family a personal apology.

Andrew Sachs confirmed he had received the apology, as well as written ones from Brand and Ross.

That same day, Russell Brand released this video, where he announces his resignation from the BBC:

Source: YouTube

It appeared that Brand was serious about the apology. Although, you might notice a picture of dictator Joseph Stalin hanging strategically behind Brand in the video. Read into that what you will.

Apologies are delicate acts. They are ignited by problems. They are hard to make. Uncomfortable to watch.

Yet they hold incredible power to heal. And to re-establish trust.

In the world of marketing, apologies are rare.

Yet there are many times in the lifetime of a brand where it seems appropriate to apologize to customers.

We've heard Russell Brand apologize, but let's see what happens when big brands do...

Bart Simpson sorry.gif
Source: Fox Broadcasting Company

It's unusual to hear a corporation apologize.

But I believe apologizing is actually good for business. While an apology is powerful, it must be born of three ingredients:

It has to be sincere, it has to be timely, and above all, it has to be done willingly. The public's ability to judge these three elements is acute.

Last year, Johnson & Johnson found themselves with a customer loyalty problem.

It all began when a particular brand of tampon in the O.B. line was discontinued in North America in 2010.

O.B. Tampons.jpg Source: jezebel.com

At the same time, Johnson & Johnson was having widespread supply-chain problems with O.B. that led to empty shelves.

People thought the whole O.B. line was being discontinued.

A consumer petition was started demanding that the product be brought back, and a Facebook group called for a boycott of all Johnson & Johnson products.

A spokesperson for the company said they clearly, quote: "Underestimated the degree of loyalty for that particular O.B. product."

Then, Johnson & Johnson did a rare thing. They apologized to their customers. But they did it in a unique way.

Working with their advertising agency, Lowe Roche, they created a musical apology.

When customers logged onto "obtampons.ca/apology" and typed in their first name, a greeting card popped up that said:

O.B. tampon card.jpg Source: Johnson & Johnson

Then a video appeared of a good looking guy sitting at a white piano outside, by the sea, singing a personal apology - just for you.

Go to this link and type in a name (pick a standard spelling of a typical girl's name):


The apology was sent out to over 65,000 loyal O.B. users, a list that covered about a 1,000 distinct names.

The response was overwhelmingly positive from women. They liked that it was funny and that it played with all the clichés of a power ballad. And because Johnson & Johnson used online technology, they made it engaging without resorting to a hard-sell commercial.

According to an article in the National Post, it was widely circulated through social media, news sites and blogs. Within the first 10 days alone in Canada, it had garnered almost 600,000 unique views.

As the J&J spokesperson said, "We're hoping that by sending people this personal apology, they'll forgive us." It was an apology that turned heads, stopped a potential loss of customers, J&J showed their customers they were listening.

And it even made them smile.

Then there are incidents that are no laughing matters.

A few years ago, a video was posted on YouTube by some Domino Pizza employees.

Source: WCNC Charlotte, NC

The video attracted over a million views in just a few days.

The two employees were immediately fired and eventually arrested. Even though they claimed it was just a prank and the food was never delivered, it was a PR disaster for Dominos.

The company's reputation was heavily damaged overnight.

It was serious enough that the President of Dominos offered an apology in a video:

Source: Dominos Pizza

A research company did an interesting analysis of this apology video. They studied the reaction of 243 people to test the believability of the Dominos President.

As the President begins to outline the prank and how seriously he is taking the issue, the score shoots to the top of the "believability" scale.

It dips as he says it was an isolated incident, but when he says the two employees have been dismissed and will be arrested, the score begins to go upward again.

When the President begins to talk about the Dominos' policy for cleanliness, and how they have auditors visiting stores on a daily basis to ensure clean premises, his score drops considerably.

When he goes on to say the owner of that particular franchise is reeling, and that they acknowledge the incident has caused damage to their brand, his believability score goes up.

Then, when he speaks from the heart, saying that it "sickened" him that the actions of two individuals could impact their company, his believability score goes through the roof.

Here is the second-by-second analysis of that apology:

Source: MediaCurves.com

It's interesting that the overriding impulse by Presidents and CEOs to talk policy and mission statements, even when they feel the information is necessary to calm the waters, actually chips away at their credibility.

Yet, when the Dominos President spoke from the heart, when there was emotion in the apology, people responded with maximum believability scores.

fedex logo.jpg Source: FedEx

In December of 2011, a security camera caught a Fed Ex employee throwing a big package over a gate then just walking away.

Source: YouTube

The customer was actually home at the time, with his front door wide open. All the Fed Ex guy had to do was ring the bell on the gate, which he walked right past.

The package contained a computer monitor. Needless to say, it was shattered when it hit the driveway.

The owner of the monitor posted the video to YouTube. It received over 4 million views in just a few days. The video horrified the public, as it was the holiday season, when the most packages of the year are being delivered.

Fed Ex brass expressed shock over the video. They were able to find the offending employee by using their own tracking technology, and he was reprimanded.

Fed Ex apologized to the customer directly, and replaced the monitor. On top of that, the Senior Vice President for Fed Ex posted a blog on the company website, titled "Positively, Absolutely Unacceptable" (a play on their long-time slogan) and he apologized on video:

Source: FedEx

You could argue that when a video gets 4 million views, a company is cornered and forced to apologize.

But I maintain many companies would have just sent out defensive press releases, and not have asked for forgiveness. In spite of this incident, a recent survey showed Fed Ex scoring incredibly high when it came to "trust."

Recently, the Toronto Maple Leafs didn't make the playoffs. Again.

So they printed a full-page apology in the newspaper:

Maple Leaf apology.jpg Source: Toronto Star

The Leafs haven't won a Stanley Cup since 1967 - tied with two other teams for the longest drought in hockey history. The team hasn't made the playoffs in seven seasons.

It was the first time the team management had ever apologized to the fans.

It appeared the apology was a failure. First, it was done in print, not in person. There was no face-time to judge conviction or sincerity.

A fan said it was as sincere as breaking up with a girlfriend in a text message.

As communications specialist Michael France wrote, corporate apologies are evaluated according to human metrics, not financial ones. Does the company seem sincere? Will it fix the problem? Is there reason to believe things will change?

The Leafs haven't won for a long time. Ticket and beer prices haven't gone down. 1967 was a long time ago.

The press and the public just didn't seem to buy it.

Source: CBC National News

In 2008, it was confirmed that meat products from a Maple Leaf Foods plant had tested positive for Listeria.

CEO Michael McCain ordered a recall of all 220 packaged meats from that plant. As details of the contaminated food became more and more serious, McCain wanted to reassure the public that Maple Leaf Foods was concerned for their health and that it was responding with every resource it had:

Source: Maple Leaf Foods

In this video, McCain outlined his company's response to the outbreak. But it also contained a very important sentence. One that can make all the difference to the public, yet as Elton John once said, it contained the hardest word.

It has to be said that absolutely no apology can make up for a tragedy where people die. Nothing can.

But Maple Leaf Foods didn't avoid blame or point fingers, they didn't keep silent and they didn't keep a low profile. In other words, CEO McCain assumed full responsibility.

Innocent Beverages.jpg Source: Innocent Beverages Inc

In one of my favourite apology stories, a UK beverage company called Innocent Drinks sent out a coupon for Easter. Except, the wrong barcode was attached, making it impossible to redeem. So Innocent sent out an immediate apology to all its customers, along with a coupon that worked.

innocent apology.jpg Source: Innocent Beverages

Note the last line of their apology. Innocent suggested customers could keep the old coupon as: "A memento of our stupidity."

In the end, an apology can mean more to customers than financial remuneration.

As writer Michael France says, an apology lets a company write an ending to a bad story.

A reputation can take decades to build, and a day to lose.

Regaining credibility is a painful, delicate journey.

But if people have genuine relationships with brands, then like any relationship in life, an occasional apology is not inappropriate.

Trendwatching.com published an interesting article recently saying when companies demonstrate a human side, when they can show humility, empathy and maybe even a little humour, customers become more loyal.

Put another way, a company can have flaws, and still be awesome.

Trendwatching calls it being "Flawsome."

If history has taught us anything, it's that great humans have great flaws.

The same goes for great companies.

So with all due respect to Sir Elton John,

Sorry seems to be the smartest word...

...when you're under the influence.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.