Lately, it appears that brands are coming out more to publicly apologize for their mishaps, mistakes, and outright screw-ups. Due to the rate at which we now consume information, consumers are beginning to hold brands accountable to those mistakes in social media environments. As consumers become more demanding with their need to be heard and create change, brands need to rethink their strategy on how to apologize. The wrong choice of words, the wrong TV ad, or the wrong response to a post on Facebook could create its own backlash with a different set of loyal consumers. Here are five steps brands can take to win back loyal fans and even create new customers.
Understand the size and scope of the issue for which you are apologizing
Companies make mistakes all the time. It happens, and there is no way around it. Mistakes can range from small typos that create some confusion to large manufacturing issues that can cause consumer deaths. Before running off in a panic, brands need to take a step back and truly analyze the situation and whom it affects. Using the wrong subject line in a promotional email very often just needs a follow-up email that corrects the typo, explains the situation, and apologizes for the confusion. When your customers die because of a brand’s mistake, it must pull out all of the stops to tackle the apology — including national TV, social media, print, and radio — while being tried in the court of public opinion as consumers and the press wallow in the aftermath. One only has to look at the Toyota manufacturing issues, the TEPCO nuclear debacle, or the Chinese dairy industry disaster to see the lengths to which brands will go to issue an apology.
It’s a given to call in the big guns such as your legal and PR teams for large-scale issues, but it’s also important to understand the difference between a big issue and a small issue that could become a big issue. What might be small to a brand could mean a lot to consumers. One brand recently sent out a coupon in error. Instead of owning the response, it posted on Facebook (and nowhere else) that the coupon couldn’t be used in conjunction with any other sales. Two things occurred as a result of this: The company lost customers, and it got sued. The companies’ customers were outraged and posted thousands of disgruntled posts to the point where one fan helped to start a class action lawsuit for coupon fraud. If the brand had just owned up to the mistake and taken the financial hit from the coupon redemptions, it would not be fighting a class action lawsuit now. It’s a bad economy — something as small as a $2 coupon could mean the world to a person who is out of a job.
If it truly is a small issue, then still take the opportunity to handle it with care. Millions of calls are made daily to customer service lines about lost packages, website functionality, or rude sales clerks. I recently had an issue with Neiman Marcus’ email program. Quite simply, I couldn’t get it to unsubscribe my email address, and I was receiving multiple emails a day from the company. It happened for about six months until I finally got so annoyed I used the Neiman Marcus website and LinkedIn to track down the email addresses of the CEO and SVP of digital marketing at the company to shoot off an email explaining exactly how it was in violation of the CAN-SPAM Act. In less than an hour, I received a personal email from both the CEO and SVP of digital marketing. In fact, the CEO offered me a $100 gift certificate for the inconvenience. When I politely told her "thank you, but no thank you, "she insisted on following up the next week to make sure that there were no further problems. I received two phone calls the following week from the director of marketing at Neiman Marcus double-checking that my email address had been removed. It had been, and I was a happy camper. Something like an email unsubscribe is miniscule to a brand like Neiman Marcus, yet it treated me like a rockstar — and as a result, I am now I’m telling all of you about it. Brands like Neiman Marcus realize the power of the pen, especially when put in the hands of a big mouth like me.
Choose the right medium and use it the right way
Once you understand the scope of the issue, choose the right medium to address the issue. If the mistake was made in a recent email to your consumer database, email the database. However, if it was a segment of your database, then only email that segment. There’s no need to alert all 10 million consumers in your database if only 100,000 were affected. If the error was large, like the pet food recall in 2007, it is absolutely necessary use all media vehicles necessary to get the word out. When lives are in danger, human or otherwise, spare no expense. Social media is a great way to get the word out immediately. For example, if your website goes down over the weekend, it is incredibly easy to post a "please be patient with us" notice on Facebook. It is not appropriate to only use social outlets when it is a larger scale issue. A brand cannot expect all of its consumers to check its brand’s fan page that day to get the message, even if a brand has 10 million fans. Social media is powerful, but it is not the be-all end-all. A brand may have to use TV, radio, press conferences, digital, and the good old-fashioned customer service line if an issue is big enough. Brands spend millions of dollars on proprietary and syndicated research to plan their media buys and to understand the motivations of their consumers. Leverage that knowledge of your consumer. Be just as thoughtful when planning the apology delivery medium as you are in your planning your brand media.
When you apologize, apologize with sincerity
It takes a lot of courage to take the high road, but it pays to be authentic. When you make a mistake, own it and own up to it. Remember when you were a kid and your mom made you apologize for hitting Johnny in the head with a baseball bat, but you weren’t really sorry? Johnny knew you weren’t being sincere and that you were just apologizing because your mom made you do it. Just like Johnny, consumers can sniff out a fake. Apologizing because your PR team told you to do it is no longer good enough for consumers. Social media is just too powerful for brands to be anything less than authentic with their words. To be a brand of integrity, it’s imperative to actually stand for those values you say you have and that mission statement that’s hanging in a pretty frame in your office.
Brands will often take the route of giving an underhanded apology to their customers, such as "We’re sorry if we offended you." Be sorry for the mistake you made. Apologize for the real issue, not for hurting a consumer’s feelings. If there’s truly nothing to be apologetic about, then a brand should not be apologizing in the first place. However, if there is something to apologize for, then it is best not to belittle the millions of people who have a strong opinion about the company’s actions.
One brand that did a good job of apologizing with sincerity is Backcountry. A day after tornadoes hit Alabama, Backcountry sent an email out with an email header that read, "Mother Nature hates you. Deal with it." The email creative was planned as witty copy weeks before the natural disaster occurred, and Backcountry was merely a victim of bad timing. As soon as Backcountry realized that this gross mistake occurred, an email was sent out that started with, "We messed up." The email went on to explain how it "messed up" in plain, clear language. It followed up with multiple apologies, as well as a statement that said its behavior was "unacceptable." (A copy of the complete email can be read here.) The apology email was simple, clean, and looked like a letter you would receive in the mail. Backcountry did exactly what it should have done. It simply apologized. There was no 10 percent off coupon or offer of free shipping to "help ease the pain." It was meant to be an apology, and that is exactly what it was.
Take into account that brands spend millions of dollars over multiple years in an effort to increase brand awareness and value through the eyes of their consumers. Brands pick their colors and logos based off of their target audience’s emotions. Brands invalidate those same consumers’ emotions when they ignore what is important to the consumer. When consumers are unhappy, three things happen: They tell everyone they know, they stop buying your product, and that expensive brand engagement study that you recently gave to the CMO just went into the trash. When a brand actually takes responsibility for its actions, consumers notice that as well and will associate your brand with a positive emotion. Positive emotions influence brand value, which, in turn, drives strong purchase intent.
Time is of the essence, so apologize swiftly
Once a brand decides to step up to the plate and apologize, there should be no delay in the apology. As Backcountry did with its email blunder, send an email out to your database immediately. Use vehicles like social media to get the message out to all of your brand evangelists. If a brand is forthright and sincere in its apology, fans and subscribers will actually help the brand by self-policing Facebook, YouTube, etc. For a brand to accept its shortcomings and own its mistake, a sense of humility must be found.
When the Epsilon breach occurred and multiple brands’ consumer databases were hacked earlier this year, some brands responded immediately to the situation and others took their time in addressing the issue. To be fair, the mistake was not the fault of the brand; it was a security issue that occurred through an email service provider it used. Regardless, a brand cannot take a wait-and-see approach in alerting customers, especially if the customer’s PII is at stake.
If an issue has been identified, taking the ostrich apology approach is not a good strategy. A brand cannot stick its head in the sand in hopes that the problem will go away. When a brand addresses an issue swiftly, it alerts consumers that the brand cares about them and that it values them as customers.
Make it right in the eyes of the consumer
It seems like common sense to tell a brand that when an issue occurs to make it right, but brands often tend to fall short in this arena. When there is an issue, simply fix it. Sometimes all it takes is a simple apology to make it right. However, customers may need to be compensated, and if that happens, refund the money. One of the brand propositions that Nordstrom offers is that it will accept any return. If you bought something six months ago at Nordstrom and it’s now broken, the company will accept that return. Nordstrom does an excellent job of turning a company return policy into one of its strongest brand propositions. It may cause unexpected expenses to occur, but brands should take that into account as they plan their budgets. Just like we build "opportunistic funds" into our media plans, brands also need to have a slush fund for when the unexpected occurs.
Handling larger scale issues — like when human life is affected — is most likely out of the hands of a brand manager or brand director. It then becomes the responsibility of the corporate officers to handle the issue appropriately. Even when how to handle the issue is not their decision, brand marketers can control the tone used in getting the message out to the consumer and what media vehicles are used.
Consumers want to know the issue has been acknowledged and that action steps have been taken. An apology with no action is only half an apology. Actions speak louder than words, so taking the proper steps to make it right will make the brand a hero in the eyes of a consumer. Something as small as great customer service, particularly in times of trouble, make a little effort go a long way.
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